Big Cat Habitat – Sarasota, Florida

Lions, tigers and bears, oh my! I’m sure you have heard that along the way somewhere. I was helping a group of photographers and we thought it might be a good idea to go out and actually practice some of the stuff that we had been working on. One place that was mentioned was the Big Cat Habitat in Sarasota, Florida. When I had been shooting in the area and would hear a roar from the surrounding location, I thought I had licked too many stamps and was hearing things. Apparently, the noises in my head were real this time. The folks that I was with were looking for a challenge. What better than to try and get an image through two fences that were built like Fort Knox? Zoos and animal displays can be difficult to get anything out of due to the containment system. However, we were going to preserver and see what we could come up with. I had never been there before so this was going to be interesting.

We arrived on location and the next question was, “Which lens do we take?” All I had to go on was my experience in the past. Also, since we are talking about bears, tigers and other cats that would rather eat you, it’s generally a good idea to have a solid fence in place. What I have found when faced with this type of situation is the longer the lens the better. We have tried making fences disappear with constant low f-stop lenses and fences were an issue for them. I replied to the group, “Take the longest lens that you have.” In my case I happen to have my Nikon 80mm-400mm with me. I fitted this on the camera and also took my CF card wallet and we were off.

You pay your money and then you are given access to the area to shoot the animals. They also had a show that was going to be later in the day. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, so it was going to be a day of fighting keeping the highlights and not plugging the shadows. I would have paid money for a good cloud, but it wasn’t in the cards this day. We walked in about thirty feet and we were greeted by Yogi, who was looking for a picnic basket.

 Spencer Pullen photographed this Kodiak bear swimming at Big Cat Habitat in Sarasota, Florida.Kodiak Bear Swimming – Spencer Pullen © 2014 All Rights Reserved

The first challenge was going to be getting as close to the first of the double fence as possible. I removed the six-inch lens hood off the lens and placed the lens against the fence. Now it was a waiting game. When the bear was closer to me, the fence was visible in the frame. As he walked towards the back of the enclosure, the fence disappeared. I was shooting in manual mode. My settings were ISO 400, f/5.6 at 1/640ish. Since the subject was a brown bear, it would have been too easy to go with a fast shutter speed and fill in the detail in his fur. Also, since I was using a 400mm lens, this meant that my shutter speed would have to stay above 1/600 to get a sharp hand held shot. The benefit of using a higher speed is that I was able to stop the water as well dripping from his face.

 Spencer Pullen photographed this Kodiak bear scratching at Big Cat Habitat in Sarasota, Florida.Rub A Dub Dub, Scratching In The Tub – Spencer Pullen © 2014 All Rights Reserved

During bath time, we happen to see him scratching his face with this paw. Check out the nails on this sucker. My wife who owns a day spa would love to get a hold of those to file and polish! Again, with the fast shutter speed, freezing the action was fairly simple. Also, since he was in complete full sun, this made getting an even exposure a little easier.

 Florida Panther at Big Cat Habitat in Sarasota, Florida. Photo by Spencer PullenFlorida Panther – Spencer Pullen © 2014 All Rights Reserved

I’m lucky where I live as I get to see some of these amazing creatures crossing our road. I guess that’s the benefit when you are the only house on the street. This was the same set up, lens against the fence, but we caught a break, he was under cover. I love shade, this evened out the light and I was able to get all of the details on his face. It was a warn day so all of the animals were panting. You can see how the fence on the backside started to create an interesting pattern.

 Portrait of a peacock at Big Cat Habitat in Sarasota, Florida. Photo by Spencer Pullen.Mr. Peacock – Spencer Pullen © 2014 All Rights Reserved

Roaming the property was a couple of peacocks. One of them wandered under an enclosure and was confronting the other one. This lead to them spreading their tails to see who was the most macho, or it could have been his girlfriend. He held still long enough for me to get a couple of portraits. Since I had a long lens on, shooting the whole animals was out. However, I like this one better as I was able to use his tail as a background for his head, how about that, a photographer’s built in background!

 This tortoise was spying Spencer Pullen at Big Cat Habitat in Sarasota, Florida.Tortoise – Spencer Pullen © 2014 All Rights Reserved

At first we didn’t see any of the tortoises, after closer inspection, there were all faced away from us munching on a fresh box of lettuce that was put out for them. This one in particular got his fill and made his way back to his house. While he was on his gingerly stroll home, he stopped and let me take a few portraits of him. Like the peacock, I thought a portrait of the head was more visual impacting verses the whole tortoise shot. Check out those choppers, not a place for a finger!

 Spencer Pullen photographed this white tiger at Big Cat Habitat in Sarasota, Florida.Who’s Next? – Spencer Pullen © 2014 All Rights Reserved

As we made our way around, we found a white and black tiger. He was playing around in the enclosure and taking a bath in the fountain that they provided. As with any of these animals, I was shooting burst mode and hoping for the best. This one kind of looks like he just finished a nice steak and was ready for seconds!

 Tiger trainer at Big Cat Habitat in Sarasota, Florida. Photo by Spencer PullenGo Ahead, Make My Day! – Spencer Pullen © 2014 All Rights Reserved

I’ve never been the manager at the local Jiffy Lube, but this doesn’t look good. They were getting the tigers ready for the upcoming show and we only had a few minutes to get some photos. This tiger has the same look that I get when looking through the glass case at the local doughnut shop. At this point when we were there, the trainer had all five appendages on his hands, I’ll have to check back for an update on this.

 Chance the Chimp with his trainer at Big Cat Habitat in Sarasota, Florida. Photo by Spencer Pullen.Chance The Chimp – Spencer Pullen © 2014 All Rights Reserved

One of the founding folks of this establishment had raised monkeys her whole life. I have to say, this little guy was amazing. When he first came out, he sat on a table next to her and they kept looking at each other. I wanted to capture this bond if possible. The arena was fenced in a lighter chicken wire so this was going to make shooting through the fence a little easier. Our group was positioned off to the side so we could stand and take photos and not interfere with the rest of the crowd. After ripping off a number of frames, I was able to capture the look of the monkey on how much he must really love her.

 Chance the Chimp playing basket ball at Big Cat Habitat in Sarasota, Florida. Photography by Spencer Pullen.Chance Plays B-Ball – Spencer Pullen © 2014 All Rights Reserved

One of the interesting things that Chance did was play basketball. He could slam dunk the ball without a problem. This was an indoor arena and it was rather dark, I decided I was going to have to crank up the ISO. I ended up using ISO 3200, which is usually a death sentence on my old camera. Well, I have to say, Nik’s Define noise reduction pulled me out of the ditch big time.

 This talented dog could add numbers at Big Cat Habitat in Sarasota, Florida. Photograph taken by Spencer Pullen.4 A Dog – Spencer Pullen © 2014 All Rights Reserved

Part of the show was a dog that a couple brought down from Ohio. They had a signs facing the audience and would ask the audience to come up with a question at random. Depending on the answer, the dog would go and get the correct sign. In this case, someone asked, “What is 3 + 1?” The dog went and got the number four. Crazy, there were also yes and no questions. He got them right every time. Where was this dog when I had to do my homework in college?

It was a great day and we got to see some amazing animals. If you are looking for something to do or have family visiting that you need to entertain for a while, this may be a viable place. It’s truly rewarding when the folks that you are working with are also successful in creating photos that they will be proud of. Photography is technical, however I find that some of this stuff is just plain trial and error. I do keep a field notebook in my bag in case something really worked well or crashed and burned. Grab your long lenses and go visit the zoo…or if your house is a zoo that may work too!

Until Next Time…

Keep Your Glass Clean


  1. That was a fun day spencer! Thanks to you I got some great pictures that day.

  2. Animals are such fun, natural subjects – great shots!

  3. Great photos – I had wondered about going there because I was sure there would be a fence issue. You certainly conquered that challenge!

  4. Wow. Great story and I Love the bear. Great shots.

  5. great shots!! I also know that is you pay an extra fee they will give you a private tour and let you put you lens through the second fence.

  6. i like the bear preying

  7. also the water splash with individual drops

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