The day before Thanksgiving in 2005, Kathy Sartore, married to photographer Joel Sartore, learned she had breast cancer. “Cancer is a thief. It steals time,” Joel says. “But cancer can also be a blessing, an amazing experience that forces us to set things right. My work had made me a stranger to my three kids. With Kathy sick, I knew it was time to stay put for a while.” So Joel stayed close to home. He started photographing endangered species in his hometown zoo in Lincoln, Nebraska. Then he took his portable studio down the road to the Omaha Zoo. “My fascination with endangered species started when, as a child, I saw a picture of Martha, the last passenger pigeon,” Joel explains. “She died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. Audubon described flocks flying at 60 miles an hour, darkening the skies for days at a time. And there she was, the last bird. I’ve never forgotten that.”
Kathy has beaten cancer, but Joel’s mission continues. So far, he’s documented more than 1,200 imperiled species. Among his photographs in this month’s story “Last One,” you’ll see a pygmy rabbit named Bryn. She died not long after the picture was made. Now the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit population is no more. Joel hopes his work will help prevent this from happening to other animals.
Since that monumental day in 2005, Joel has learned how to combine his passion for his family with his passion for photography. “Kathy’s cancer made me realize how little time any of us really has,” he says. Time, our most precious currency, is the most valuable thing we humans can spend.
Photo: Cole Sartore