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Omaha Zoo’s Earth and Wine

A Perfect Blend of Conservationism and Cabernet

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The Henry Doorly Zoo is sponsoring an evening of education in a relaxing atmosphere filled with good food and wine. Award-winning National Geographic photographer and Nebraska native, Joel Sartore, will speak about conservationism and his latest book, RARE: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species.



Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo’s world-class status calls to mind its extraordinary exhibits. But its lesser-known conservation research ranks it among the world’s top zoos as well, says Tina Cherica, Director of Development at the Omaha Zoo Foundation which supports “the programs and mission of Omaha’s Zoo by raising the funds necessary to ensure a growing, vibrant zoo in the decades ahead.” 

On September 2, the Omaha Zoo Foundation will host the second bi-annual Earth and Wine event whose purpose is to raise public awareness of Omaha Zoo’s conservation research. Says Cherica: “So many people are surprised when they learn of the entire scope of activity that takes place here. The intent of this event is to provide a venue for anyone in community interested in learning more about this work to do so as well as opening our gates to leaders within the conservation community to share their work with our guests.”

Earth and Wine is held on opposite years from the Zoo’s Zoofari fundraiser. Native Nebraskan and National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore will speak about saving North American plant and animal species from extinction. He will draw upon his experience while shooting his second book, RARE: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species.

The evening will also include international food and wine tasting, featuring five international “grazing stations” which pair exotic foods with compatible wines. Live music and the opportunity to visit with Sartore will round out the relaxing but educational late summer evening. 

Laurie and Charles Kay are Earth and Wine 2010 chairs. Photographers themselves, they were familiar with Joel Sartore’s work and his strong avocation of conservation. Sartore is no stranger to Omaha’s Zoo, which he describes as his “childhood zoo.” In his youth, he spent hours viewing animals in carefully replicated habitats. Now as an adult, he likens the Zoo to an ark: “It’s the only way many species will survive going into the future.” The Zoo has helped saved species like the black hooded ferret from certain extinction, breeding it extensively in captivity and reintroducing it back into the wild.

To date, the Omaha Zoo has produced and released the endangered Wyoming Toad and the Puerto Rican Crested Toad. It has joined other zoos and aquaria across the country in breeding rare coral species for release in the wild. The Omaha Zoo is at the forefront of reproductive sciences, having one the largest genetic resource banks in the world. It also promotes plant conservation and currently protects over 180 rare orchids in its laboratories with the aim of restoring these plants in their natural settings.

Photography is a powerful tool for promoting conservationism. For the past 20 years, Sartore has captured the natural world in beautifully rendered still images for National Geographic. He first became truly interested in conservationism after shooting a story about the American gulf coast. He recalls how filthy the beaches outside Galveston, TX were, littered with medical waste, tarnished by tar, the resting place for dead dolphins. He witnessed first hand a sobering reality that his lens would continue to capture throughout his career: “Humans are doing a tremendous amount of damage to the earth.”

Though his career is not limited to conservation photography, he gravitates to this genre. They are “pictures that go to work. You can right environmental wrongs with photography,” Sartore has witnessed.

That is what he hopes to do with his latest book. RARE is a compilation of studio portraits that “gives equal weight and magnitude to all animals and plants great and small,” says Sartore. He offers an intimate look at the Mississippi sandhill crane and American grizzly bear, the Higgins eye mussel and the gray wolf. It cautions us that many species are on the verge of extinction-the Columbia basin pygmy rabbit went extinct while the book was being made - but celebrates the repopulation of other species, like the American bald eagle, once at risk of extinction.

Though most of his subjects were shot in a studio setting, Sartore captured some in their natural habitats because they do not exist in captivity. Sartore applied for a special permit to shoot the Delhi Sands flower-loving fly, the only fly protected by the government. A federally permitted fly handler accompanied Sartore to a weedy lot in the LA basin to find his subject. He had one chance only to capture the fly that lives underground in a larval state for a few years but only above ground as a fly for a few days. The fly handler anesthetized a single insect using carbon dioxide gas. The animal was under for about 20 seconds. When it woke up on Sartore’s portable studio background, Sartore got his shot. The fly was then released back into its habitat unharmed just a few minutes later. If Sartore missed his moment, or if the fly got away before any pictures were taken, he would have been out of luck.

“We’ve never been more disconnected with the natural world.  We’re more concerned with what’s on TV and the price at the pump,” Sartore believes. This is a dangerous ignorance, he continues, because “we humans depend on the natural world for our clean air, drinkable water and food. But our practices are threatening scores of species which eventually threaten our own existence.

“In many parts of China,” he offers as an illustration of this sobering point, “farmers have to hand-pollinate their crops because the insects which typically carry out this vital task are too few. Conservationism is not a fad.  It’s something we have to do for our survival,” he insists.

Getting people excited about nature is one way to rectify our myopic way of viewing the world. This shift in priorities can begin at the zoo and aquarium, he asserts. “Most people live in urban areas so it can’t happen in nature,” he explains. For many, zoos and aquariums are the only connection humans have with nature. Cherica concurs: “Zoos are important learning centers…and may be among the only places anyone will ever have the chance to see of these species featured in Joel’s book. Many species would already be extinct if zoos did not exist.”

For more information about Omaha Zoo’s Earth and Wine event, call 402-738-2073 or visit www.omahazoofoundation.org. For more information on Joel Sartore or to order RARE, visit www.joelsartore.com.

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