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Hope Ryden; Tracking wildlife with a lens

By Diane Casselberry ManuelStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 11, 1982



New York

When Hope Ryden began tracking wild horses in Wyoming in the late 1960s, it was almost impossible to get close enough to photograph them.

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''They had been chased by so many mustangers that they spooked from a mile away,'' she says. ''Eventually, I found that they would accept me if I first let them know I was there and then quieted down and stayed put. So I started singing to them from a long way off, as I approached the herd.

''A local newspaper interviewed me about what I was doing up in the mountains , and I happened to mention this. Well, the story came out, and you can guess what the headline read: 'She sings to wild horses.' ''

The article raised so much skepticism among local ranchers that Miss Ryden offered to take one along on her next photographic outing. While he stayed on a hill in the distance, watching through binoculars, she slowly made her way toward the horses, singing softly as she went.

''Do you know, I never got closer to a wild horse in my life than I did that day!'' she recalls. ''I was right on top of them -- I didn't even need my long lenses. And when that rancher came down from the hills, he was the best ally I had in town.''

The results of Hope Ryden's patience and ingenuity in the field are extraordinary photographs of wild animals seldom seen by even the most practiced observers. For more than 10 years her pictures of mustangs, coyotes, and bobcats have appeared on the covers of such magazines as National Geographic, Smithsonian, and National Audubon. She has written seven books and received the Humane Society of the United States Joseph Wood Krutch Award and the American Horse Protection Association's Humanitarian of the Year Award for her work.

Says Robert E. Gilka, head of the photographic staff of National Geographic, ''Very few photographers are as dedicated as Hope is to the kind of work she does, which is very difficult. She gets involved in subjects that are extremely controversial, like wild horses and coyotes, and that are extremely difficult from a photographic standpoint.

''But Hope is so dedicated to the plight of the animals she photographs that she doesn't get discouraged and she doesn't quit -- she perseveres and gets what's needed.''

Hope Ryden spends one half of each year in the field tracking and photographing animals, and the other half at home in New York City, writing articles and books and often preparing notes for congressional testimony on the protection of endangered species.

A former award-winning documentary filmmaker for ABC news, Miss Ryden was drawn to the plight of the West's wild mustangs in 1968 when she was sent to Wyoming to do a film about them. She has been going back ever since.

''When I'm in the West, people say they can't believe I live in New York City. And when I'm in New York, people say they can't imagine me out there with all those rattlesnakes,'' she says with a hoot of laughter. ''But the two life styles combine very nicely. The adjustment of going from a fast-paced, aggressive, city situation to that quiet, waiting situation in the field takes a little time, sometimes two or three or four days. At first nothing's happening and I want to romp around and make things happen. But once I settle myself so I'm not impatient, it's beautiful and I'm at peace.''

Unlike many naturalists who use radio collars and other marking gadgetry to track animals in the wild, Miss Ryden relies on snowshoes and cross-country skis. Instead of studying animals to find answers to scientific questions, she says she is interested only in observing how animals behave.

Her observations take long days, months, and often years. Every spring for 14 years she has followed one particular mustang herd, and she spent three years watching the elusive bobcats that are the subject of her most recent book, ''Bobcat Year'' (New York: Viking Press).

A warm, outgoing person, Miss Ryden is full of enthusiasm and affection for the wild animals she follows. She says she could ''talk forever'' about her work. But when she heads off on field work, she leaves company and conversation far behind, traveling alone and often camping out for weeks at a time. ''You have to be very, very quiet to see animals, and you have to realize that you never see an animal that hasn't seen you first,'' she explains. ''I have to be taken for granted by animals, just as they might take another species for granted.''

One of Hope Ryden's most remarkable discoveries of animal behavior came during the 21/2 years she spent observing what she describes as the ''smartest animal in North America'' - the coyote. After tracking coyotes through two winters in Yellowstone National Park, she went one spring to the National Elk Refuge in search of a den of young pups.

''Knowing that you can't fool a coyote, I thought my only hope was to be obvious and to be accepted as part of the community,'' Miss Ryden explains. She knew that coyotes would never accept a human figure near their dens, but she sensed that they had become accustomed to vehicles. So she drove a bright yellow , paneled van into the middle of a clearing near a den she'd spotted and stayed inside it for the next seven weeks, taking pictures of the yearlings with a 1, 000-meter lens through a curtained-off door.

''I never got up near the front windows and I never let them see me,'' she says. ''And I discovered....that the coyote acts just like the wolf, that it has a social organization, and that when one litter of pups is born, the other animals tend it. That showed that they control their own populations by restricting their litters. It was terribly interesting to watch.

''I lived like an astronaut in that particular instance,'' she recalls with some chagrin. ''After seven weeks, when I came out of my van, I went to a party in Jackson and just never stopped talking.''