Ronan Donovan has spend large chunks of his life waiting – for the perfect shot, the perfect moment.
He spent three months among white wolves in the Arctic, for an epic documentary (shown here) that debuts Sunday (Aug. 25). He spent a year in Yellowstone, filming gray wolves.
“People think that I’m like the most patient human,” he said. “I’m incredibly impatient. I’m very stubborn and very obsessive in my projects, and that’s what drives me.”
It’s driven him from studying business to being near the top of the wildlife photography field. It can wrack his emotions – more on that in a minute – and his body.
“We’re all truly putting our minds and our bodies on the line for these stories,” said Renan Ozturk, a fellow National Geographic photographer. “I was talking to Ronan (and he said), ‘Oh, my body’s not the same. The amount of four-wheeling I did; I just got surgery on both my knees.’”
Here is a former athlete, 6-foot-3; at 35, he would still be the first one chosen for pickup games. But he’s also been through a lot. “You put everything into the job,” he said. “You need to tell the story.”
In the latest project, he spent 90 summer days in the Arctic, filming a wolf pack. “I followed them one day for 40 hours straight,” he said. “We covered 60-plus miles.”
The lone limit was fuel. His all-terrain four-wheeler gets 15-20 miles a gallon, 300 miles on a tankful. At times, he headed back to refuel and sleep; when he returned one time, the pack leader was gone.
“Everything had just surrounded her,” Donovan said. “When she disappeared, it changed everything.”
She was old and had been limping; he guesses she wandered off to die alone. After waiting for days, the others realized she wasn’t returning. “They did these mournful howls.”
Intimate stories like that have shaped Donovan’s career, starting with one in Uganda, eight years ago.
After growing up in a cabin his dad built in the Vermont woods, he majored in business and minored in biology at the University of New Hampshire. He turned down job offers from insurance companies and slept on a friend’s floor for eight months, before becoming a wildlife tech at the Yosemite national park and, in 2011, helping a Harvard professor research chimpanzees in Uganda.
One chimp especially drew his attention. “He’d lost both his feet to poachers’ snares,” by the time he was 10, Donovan said. “They had calloused over (and) he got on with his life ….
“He’s still doing well; he’s sired some offspring, which is essentially the goal for any wild animal …. I realized I needed to switch from research into communicating these stories.”
By then, he had taught himself photography and had been filming chimp life above the canopy. His name was passed on to National Geographic; after other jobs, he became part of the magazine’s epic, 2014 project to spend a year in Yellowstone.
The project drew praise, but Donovan has misgivings about his portion, filming wolves. “I wasn’t doing the wolves justice; I wasn’t telling the complete story.”
We might think of Yellowstone as a place where wolves live naturally, he said, but that’s not fully the case. “They are still hunted and trapped outside of Yellowstone …. So these wolves are scared. They’re fearful of people and to tell the story of an animal that is scared of you” doesn’t work.
By comparison, wolves in the Arctic showed no fear. “They approached me in curiosity and allowed me to follow them for months and to unravel their lives.”
He knew them … and shared their sorrow when their matriarch vanished.
— “Kingdom of the White Wolf,” 8-11 p.m. ET Sunday (Aug. 25), Nat Geo Wild, rerunning 11 p.m. to 2 a.m.
— Other reruns (subject to change) scheduled for 1-4 p.m. ET Sept. 13 and 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. ET Sept. 20.
— Ronan Donovan is producer, narrator and prime cameraman; his photos are also in the September issue of National Geographic