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Walter Chandoha
Walter Chandoha

The Original Viral Cat Photographer

Walter Chandoha
Walter Chandoha

Cats are famously impossible to corral. Those furry little narcissists have their own agenda and care little about your wants and needs. And perhaps no one is more intimately familiar with their stubborn independence than cat photographer Walter Chandoha.

"Cats are their own people and they'll do what they darn well please," says Chandoha in his new book, Walter Chandoha: The Cat Photographer (Aperture, 2015).

From Walter Chandoha: The Cat Photographer (Aperture, 2015) // (Walter Chandoha)

Chandoha, 95, has spent the majority of his life behind the lens, and it was early in his career when he discovered he had a knack for capturing animals. Although the New Jersey native has photographed dogs, fowls, and horses, cats have always been the fan favorite. That, Chandoha says, is because cats are nature's divas.

"Cats are just naturally expressive and they get into such a variety of situations," he says.

From Walter Chandoha: The Cat Photographer (Aperture, 2015) // (Walter Chandoha)

From Walter Chandoha: The Cat Photographer (Aperture, 2015) // (Walter Chandoha)

For 40 years, Chandoha's cat photos — with their signature backlighting — have appeared in advertisements (for pet food, shoes, and even women's lingerie), magazines (from National Geographic to LIFE), and more than 30 books.

But it takes an expert hand, not to mention limitless patience, to get the perfect shot. Chandoha attributes his success to his wife, Maria, who has long acted as the animal handler and charmer. "It's not a one-person job," he says. Nor is it a quick one.

For his photos, Chandoha used a small upstairs bedroom in his family's suburban New Jersey home as his studio. There, Chandoha would situate himself on his knees, his camera at the ready, while the cats were placed on a table or a box. Then, Maria would get to work — holding and cajoling the cats; entertaining them with toys; petting them — until they relaxed in spite of the glaring lights.

From Walter Chandoha: The Cat Photographer (Aperture, 2015) // (Walter Chandoha)

With his window of opportunity revealed, Chandoha would give his wife the okay to pull her hands away, then photograph madly while the cats were in pose. He'd run through a zoo of animal noises and tap the hood of his camera to try to capture the Holy Grail of cat portraiture — eye contact.

"If one cat would be looking out this way and another looking somewhere completely different, that's no good," he says. "The eye contact has to be just right."

The best shots may come by chance, but Chandoha's work manages to herd the impossible, adorably capturing cats in photographs that transcend time and trends.

From Walter Chandoha: The Cat Photographer (Aperture, 2015) // (Walter Chandoha)

 

Walter Chandoha: The Cat Photographer is available now from Aperture

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Why Tiny 'Hedgehog Highways' Are Popping Up Around London
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iStock

Hedgehogs as pets have gained popularity in recent years, but in many parts of the world, they're still wild animals. That includes London, where close to a million of the creatures roam streets, parks, and gardens, seeking out wood and vegetation to take refuge in. Now, Atlas Obscura reports that animal activists are transforming the city into a more hospitable environment for hedgehogs.

Barnes Hedgehogs, a group founded by Michel Birkenwald in the London neighborhood of Barnes four years ago, is responsible for drilling tiny "hedgehog highways" through walls around London. The passages are just wide enough for the animals to climb through, making it easier for them to travel from one green space to the next.

London's wild hedgehog population has seen a sharp decline in recent decades. Though it's hard to pin down accurate numbers for the elusive animals, surveys have shown that the British population has dwindled by tens of millions since the 1950s. This is due to factors like human development and habitat destruction by farmers who aren't fond of the unattractive shrubs, hedges, and dead wood that hedgehogs use as their homes.

When such environments are left to grow, they can still be hard for hedgehogs to access. Carving hedgehog highways through the stone partitions and wooden fences bordering parks and gardens is one way Barnes Hedgehogs is making life in the big city a little easier for its most prickly residents.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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