Only have a minute? Listen instead
BROWNSVILLE — As a photojournalist, I have been trekking out to the Gladys Porter Zoo for nearly four years now. It is always a place that keeps me on my toes.
Any opportunity to photograph animals is exciting, but it is always a gamble whether I’ll leave with the photo I want. Animals often choose to nap through my visits or just aren’t that interested in me.
There is a frenetic quality to the whole thing, with a day ending with either the most amazing experiences or nothing but a nice walk through the zoo.
I first photographed Penney on Sept. 1, 2020, after the zoo announced that the month before the Western lowland gorilla had given birth to what was essentially a miracle baby.
This birth surprised everyone as the gorilla had a tumor over her pituitary gland, which interacted with her ability to conceive. Doctors diagnosed her with the adenoma — which produces excessive prolactin — nearly a decade ago.
Before the birth, she’d been able to have just one child, named Samantha, in 2006. Penney hadn’t been on birth control at the time because it was unlikely she’d be able to conceive again with the tumor.
But Penney seemed to have taken it as a personal challenge, surprising her keepers in August 2020 with her delivery out of the blue of a female gorilla later named Sally.
I say personal challenge because after arriving at the gorilla exhibit to photograph this new baby for our readers, Penney was luxuriating with her new baby, nearly overflowing with an air of smugness. I had never imagined that a gorilla could be smug but seeing her it was unmistakable.
The duo was resting from the afternoon sun in one of the below-ground areas of the exhibit near the waterline, with Penney holding Sally, just a few weeks old, on her stomach.
I had carried a large 300mm lens to get photos that day, suitable for photographing at far away distances because Penney was understandably very protective of her child. She kept Sally close as the mother and child reclined together on a stone ledge, but every few minutes, I saw her stroke the child’s back and rest her palm there. It felt as if she was both drawing my attention to her creation and reminding herself it had happened at all.
That day, I took a photo of that moment and another of her child asleep on her belly.
In my work, I am often called upon to photograph the sorrows and joys of life, both ones just beginning and those ending. While Penney is now gone, I’m grateful she allowed me an opportunity to photograph this moment of joy in her life.
The images of Penney on that day continue to be my favorites after nearly a decade of photojournalism.