Wildlife photographer says there's plenty to shoot here

December 26, 1999

Don CooperBy ANDREA BROWN-HURLEY / Staff Writer

photo: RICHARD T. MEAGHER / staff photographer

SHARPSBURG - Don Cooper wants to focus on Washington County wildlife.

The retired National Geographic nature photographer has longed dreamt of spending his days shooting pictures in the county's fields, forests, mountains and marshes, and sharing his work with county residents through slides and lectures.

"The Appalachian system is one of the richest natural systems in the world - and we're in the heart of it," said Cooper, 56, of Sharpsburg. "I just think that people need to see the wildlife that we have here in this county."

There are about 100 species of birds and more species of trees in Washington County than on the whole European continent, which was swept clean by glaciers, Cooper said.


"We have everything from fireflies to black bears," and there are even rumors of recent mountain lion sightings, he said.

Mountain lions were once indigenous to the area.

The Appalachian system is home to 2,700 types of blooming plants and as many kinds of orchids as grow in Hawaii, said Cooper, who teaches photography at Firstlook Photo in Hagerstown.

"A big percentage of our kids know more about Australian and African wildlife than they do about what's in their own back yards," Cooper said. "I want our children to see the wildlife in this area."

Cooper retired in 1997 from a 28-year career as a printer and photographer at the Gaithersburg, Md., offices of the National Geographic Society, which funded his slide programs for students.

He's seeking funding to continue presenting slide lectures to county kids and programs to the elderly, Cooper said.

The photographer said he just finished shooting film of Boonsboro buffalo as part of a slide lecture on county Colonial and pre-Colonial wildlife. The county was once home also to elk, mountain lions, gray wolves and passenger pigeons, he said.

Knowing the area's natural history is an integral part of being a successful wildlife photographer, he said.

"You have to know the habits of your subjects," he said. "I do a lot of reading and researching."

Cooper said his love of the outdoors prompted him to begin taking pictures professionally nearly 30 years ago.

He was snapping photos for fun while whitewater rafting in the early 1970s when he met an editor of National Geographic's children's magazine, Cooper said. The editor asked him to send copies of his photographs, and first printed one of Cooper's cardinals in "World Magazine" in 1972.

"The photography just snowballed," Cooper said.

He continued to work as a printer while shooting pictures for National Geographic's educational media.

Cooper's Canon camera is never far from him- but there have been a few times when it wasn't close enough.

He and a friend had just returned to camp after fly-fishing when they spotted a mother black bear sitting in the front driver's seat and her two cubs in the back seat of Cooper's Jeep, he said.

The bears were searching for the bacon-smelling frying pan that Cooper had stashed under the Jeep's front seat. The day before, mama bear climbed a tree in the camp to lap at the pan hanging to dry on a limb, Cooper said.

The bears appeared to be preparing for a drive - and Cooper's camera was in the Jeep.

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