Seeing eye to eye with wildlife

Posted: Friday, September 01, 2000

ANCHORAGE -- Dorothy Keeler doesn't see the wolf walking toward her. The photo shows her sitting cross-legged beside a gravel road in Denali National Park. She is in profile, gazing off into the wooded distance; the wolf stands just feet away, gazing at her.

Down the road with the camera, Keeler's husband Leo uses all his psychic ability to ''tell'' Dorothy to turn around. Meanwhile, he continues snapping pictures.

In a moment Dorothy describes as the high point of her 12 years as a wildlife photographer, she pivots to face the wolf. Neither attracted nor fearful, the wolf pauses, then ambles within five feet of her to retrieve a road-killed squirrel. Moving off into nearby brush, it begins to eat.

''I could hear him crunching the bones,'' Dorothy recalls.

While she admits the sound was unnerving, she felt no fear being eye to eye with a wild wolf. ''I can't tell you what that feels like. Even to this day ... it was such a thrill.''

The photography business Leo and Dorothy have built over the past decade thrives on such encounters: when a wild wolf walked past them with her litter of pups; when a bear and a wolf tussled over a moose carcass; when a fox kit first ventured away from its mother.

Together, the self-taught pair sell enough photos to generate a ''low six-figure'' gross income. Leo does what he calls the fun part of the job, arranging trips and figuring out what animals will be where. Dorothy works full time marketing and distributing their photos.

The payoff is the chance to get up close and personal with animals like Dorothy's wolf.

''This doesn't happen anywhere else on the planet,'' she says.

It's good they get along, because they're together constantly. Leo, who has kept his day job with the U.S. Forest Service, already had a video business when he met Dorothy and she began working with him. With love came a new career for her, and now photography is her passion as well.

The pair spend seemingly every spare moment stalking images, most often at Denali.

Both shoot, often simultaneously, sometimes seeming unsure which one took a particular photo.

They recently decided to limit their sales to wholesale, custom and Internet venues, but for years they attended fairs and bazaars, selling prints one by one.

Some, like the extreme close-up of an eagle taken through a car window in Homer, have been best sellers. With what they call the ''Mona Lisa effect,'' the eagle's eyes follow the viewer around the room. The background is soft and uncluttered, the feathers so distinct that every tuft is visible.

''This is technically perfect,'' Leo says.

On their Web site, www.awimages.com, the couple sell stock photos and screen savers as part of ''Wilderness Inspirations,'' housed in the basement of their Anchorage home.

Here's an up-the-snout shot of a roaring grizzly, a puffin with narrow, outstretched wings, a bull moose lifting its head from a lake, dripping shimmering streams of water.

Their ''Babies of the Wilderness'' screen saver shows they can do cute, too. A baby Dall sheep standing atop its mom. Goslings, wolf pups, even an implausibly adorable grizzly cub.

Dorothy says a new airline recently approached them about using their business's eagle logo as its own. They have prints in gift shops from Yellowstone to the Smithsonian Museum and plan to release a children's book this November.

It's a varied career that they hope eventually will allow them to travel and devote even more time to their work.

''If you wait long enough, you will find something worth taking a picture of,'' Leo says. ''Just wait.''

After decades of framing amazing things through the lens of his camera, Leo saw one of the most unusual just weeks ago in Denali.

He was watching a golden eagle flying erratically around its nest as though trying to defend it. Minutes later, a grizzly bear appeared right below the eagle. Over the next few minutes, the eagle dove at the bear and at one point even landed on it, the eagle's talons in the bear's back and the bear swiping at the bird.

While that was extraordinary, Leo says, nature is always amazing.

''To me, everything is significant. Everything is special.''

The Keelers feel they're privileged to witness such things. And they're proud to share them with others. They believe their beloved wolves and other wildlife will ultimately benefit.

''You don't fall in love with things you don't see,'' Dorothy says. ''And you certainly won't lift a finger for something you have no experience with.''



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