By Claire Semnacher
WB: Have any life experiences shaped you into the photographer you are today? And more specifically, what made you want to focus on photographing animals?
I was born into a household full of animals, right next to a nature preserve. Before I was old enough to walk or talk I was learning my pets' body language. Our bulldog, Daisy, was just about at eye level with me then I suppose; perhaps I thought I was a bulldog and not a person at all! Regardless, I have always seen the animals around me as my peers or as something to wonder at.
I was also born into advertising. My father was an art director who worked on Madison Avenue, and I spent many days of my childhood on set. When the two worlds of animals and advertising came together for me, it felt very natural.
WB: Your series, “Shake” went viral last year and is going to be published into a book this summer. How exciting! Can you tell me how this opportunity came about?
Shake was something I never could have predicted. I entered the six shots I had taken so far of the very new series into PDN’s Faces competition, and it ended up as a finalist in the animal’s category. From there, little by little at first, it spread over small blogs and finally just exploded. I had millions of hits on my website and was suddenly getting portfolio spreads in magazines across the world. I got my book deal last May with HarperCollins and shot another 120 photos for my book [due] out in August of this year. I’m SO EXCITED about it; how cool, to have a book! I have a great agent and editor and a wonderful team over at HarperCollins that I get to work with to make the book happen, and it’s been a great learning experience.
WB: What has been your most rewarding experience working with animals?
Oh that is a really hard one, and it speaks more to my history in animal care than photography. I guess it’s always the stories of beating the odds, or overcoming adversity. Sometimes it’s as simple as a good day when an animal I’ve cared for, suffering from a chronic condition like renal failure, eats and drinks and wants to interact. Probably the most rewarding was when I got to foster a pit bull puppy that lost both his front legs due to severe abuse. I photographed his surgery for the court case my friend’s rescue was building against his previous owners. I was by his side almost every day during his recovery and rehab. I trained him in how to use a wheelchair; I got to watch him blossom from a reserved dog who had spent months in debilitating pain to a totally rambunctious, super-high-energy pit bull puppy, as he should have been the whole time.
WB: What’s your strategy for making the animals comfortable? Do you have to “get on their level,” in a sense?
I’m happiest when I’m 'on their level.’ I think that’s why I have such patience with them. I’m not a patient person by nature, but working with animals it seems totally natural to let them take the lead and slowly mold the behavior I’m looking for. I get on the ground with them, I play with them, I take the pressure off and do my best to make it fun for both of us. I’ve been working around animals as long as I can remember; I grew up seeing them as members of my family and playmates. I’ve worked around wild animals, abused animals, and animals that could kill me. You learn how to move around them, how to make them feel safe. I also read a lot of training and behavior books. As far as learning about animal behavior, I always tell people to volunteer at a shelter or read anything by Turid Rugaas or Jaak Pansksepp and anything pertaining to cognitive ethology.
WB: Animals can be unpredictable sometimes; have you had any scary experiences?
When I was 18 I was interning at a big cat rescue in Owasso, Michigan. A lioness grabbed my foot from between the bars and held it in her mouth, gently chewing on my boot and looking me in the eyes like a playful kitten. I froze knowing that kittens sure like to play with a moving object! A friend threw a hunk of meat next to her, and she promptly let go. I still have those boots with a tooth imprint from her, perhaps as a reminder that you always have to be aware of your safety first and foremost when working with wild animals. Aside from that, I have been bitten, scratched, knocked over, and had all manner of gross spewed at me; that’s just kind of life when you’re working around animals.
WB: I noticed that there are hardly any cats on your website, are you strictly a dog person?
There are cats on my main website; I am a cat lover too! I regularly photograph a fluffy-haired, one-eyed Persian that survived a viscous BB gun attack and a hairless sphinx that belong to my friend and has a comical amount of extra skin. They are kind of my cat muses, Regulator and Grandpaw.
WB: What is the most exotic/unique kind of animal you have photographed?
I photographed an Amur leopard being spayed. It was a powerful moment because the estimate is there are only ten of them left in the wild, and here I was witnessing one of the most endangered species in the world getting serialized. It was humbling. She had already been bred in captivity a few times, and they didn’t want to risk oversaturating the gene pool with her cubs for fear of inbreeding. There is actually a whole breeding program to keep track of how the gene pool is represented within zoological associations around the world. It is called the SSP or species survival program.
WB: There is a large section of your website dedicated to handicapped pets. Can you tell me a bit about the the little poodle, Ramen Noodle?
Ramen and I are kind of in love; his owner Jaime even says we have a bond! I think Ramen just makes people happy; he is such a good-natured dog, and people who see him are just overcome with wonder for this three-and-a-half pound poodle that walks around on his two hind legs like a tiny human. Ramen lost his legs in two separate accidents. After the first, one his owner signed his custody over to the animal hospital that performed the amputation. The second one was after Jaime, the vet tech during his first surgery, adopted him. He jumped off a chair and snapped the tiny bone in his second leg. Nothing could be done but a second amputation. Jaime was heartbroken, but just days later Ramen was already walking on his hind legs.
WB: I read in your bio that you worked as a zookeeper at the Oregon zoo. Tell me a bit about that. What kinds of animals did you work with?
So much of zoo work is manual labor: scrubbing, cleaning, building enrichment, and working on exhibits. I actually loved it. I loved watching the sunrise while scrubbing out the sea lion exhibit in waders and coveralls in the middle of the winter. I had a simple sense of pride about how much algae I could get off the underwater bridge or in how many of little seed packets wrapped in paper I could hide for the chimps. The fun part is training, that’s when you really get to interact with the animals, but it only takes up a small amount of the day. Keepers work really hard to make sure that we can give our captive animals the best life possible in captivity, even thought we know it doesn’t compare to actually living in the wild. We take pride in doing what we can to keep the animals in a good mental space.
I got to work with primates (chimps and orangutans, as well as some lesser apes and monkeys), big cats, marine life, including polar bears and huge stellar sea lions, and birds of prey. I actually worked the bird shows at the zoo, training the birds of prey and doing summer educational flight shows. It was really fun! I was also a photographer for the zoo, which allowed me amazing access.
WB: If you weren’t a photographer, what career would you have chosen?
A neurologist or a cognitive ethologist. I am totally fascinated by the brain’s emotional centers and how our emotions and behaviors are tied into our biological systems. Cognitive ethology is a relatively new study that explores the influence of conscious awareness and intention on the behavior of an animal. (read: NERD)
To visit Carli Davidson's website, click HERE
Carli Davidson is represented by Janice Moses Represents