Interviewed by Emily K. Michael

"The wolf will live with the lamb;
   the leopard will lie down with the young goat.
The calf and the lion will graze together,
   and a little child will lead them.
The cow and the bear will graze,
   and their young will lie down together,
       and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child will play
    over the hole of the cobra,
       and the weaned child will put his hand on vipers' dens."
                                — Isaiah 11:6-8

As a blind child, I hated the zoo. I wish I could say my feelings stemmed from a sophisticated ecological stance, but really, the zoo was hot and stinky, and I couldn't enjoy any of the animals. I could see nothing and smell everything — all the while listening to classmates and companions marvel at the wonders they were able to behold.

Later, I developed complicated feelings towards animal entertainments like zoos, water parks, and circuses. I wanted a special kinship with our nonhuman companions. I was bitterly jealous of anyone who could enjoy animals visually because visual observations can be made from a safe distance. Sighted people can watch whales and study butterflies. I've yet to think of a safe way for a blind woman to touch a bear or cradle a butterfly.

But I met Tim Lawrence, an artist with a plan.

Tim is a native of Jacksonville, Florida, a 70s kid brought up on Saturday Morning cartoons, Disney's Wonderful World of Color and Marlin Perkins' Wild Kingdom. With his background in Hollywood special effects, he is creating Conservation Arts, a series of life-casts that will allow blind individuals to touch wild animals. As he says, accessible art is "all about sharing."

EKM: Please tell us about yourself and your background.

TL: I was always an "animal" person. I grew up in a house with dogs and cats and aquarium fish and always had a yard full of turtles found in local wooded lots. While still in high school, I got my first weekend job at the Museum of Science and History (M.O.S.H.). I worked as an assistant, feeding and caring for their collection of reptiles and amphibians. Always fascinated by movie special effects, I relocated to Southern California in 1981 for a job in show animatronics. From there I jumped into Hollywood where, for 25 years, I helped fabricate and perform fantasy animals like gremlins, terror dogs, Bigfoots, golf course gophers, giant snakes, cavern monkeys, ducks named Howard, some Sharks and other critters.

EKM: What motivated you to begin Conservation Arts?

For the past 10 years (now back in Florida) I have been developing a concept of working with living zoo animals and the visually impaired to create bronze art. Each piece features Braille and English tiles so people can see the animals with their hands. We are hoping to raise funds for the next phase of the operation, the bronze iinstallation phase.

It all started as a lark many years ago. The Jacksonville Zoo has always been "my" zoo and I have always had friends working there. In 2006 when I was visiting home from the West Coast, a friend called to say that a jaguar, "Onca II," would be in the hospital for X-rays — would I like to come in and make a cast of a paw? That was the beginning of this work, and from there, it evolved into the current concept.

EKM: How is each cast prepared?

TL: I use a compound called Alginate that dentists use to mold their patients' teeth. It's made from seaweed (kelp) and it is a very safe material. When the supervising veterinarian signals that I'll have a few minutes with the animal between procedures, I step in with my kit and make a quick mold. First I clean the anatomy with paper towels and water, and after applying a layer of Alginate, I back that up with a layer of plaster bandage so the mold will keep its shape when removed. That mold is wrapped in wet towels to keep the Alginate damp. The Alginate is an ephemeral material — good for one impression — and will start to evaporate water and shrink without help.

I then take the mold to my studio where it is filled with plaster. Once it "sets" (hardens), I clean it up by hand with little steel tools in a process called "pointing." The cast is then ready for 3D scanning and master molding. Much of my Hollywood work involved making life casts from actors using the same materials. It was a natural transfer of skill sets. I made or assisted in life casts on Michael Jackson, Steve Martin, Graham Nash, Tawny Welch and others.

EKM: What kind of animals have you worked with? How is each animal different?

TL: Lions, tigers, chimpanzees, gorillas, giant snapping turtles, giant otters, bonobos, sandhill cranes, Nile crocodiles, red wolves, wild pigs, many others. No two animals are the same. They are each an individual and each has a personality, even when anesthetized. I would like to work with the larger animals, the elephants, rhinos, hippos and giraffes. This work would be directly in-line with an exhibit I have already conceived I call "Hearts of the Jungle." Visitors would leave the main path, directed by graphics, and enter a low, thatched, circular pole-barn with dim light. Mounted around the inside would be bronze casts of zoo animals, some they may already have seen that day. There is the flank of an elephant, a lion; the chest of a gorilla, a crocodile. Others. As you approach any animal, either ‘touch' or a proximity switch would activate some directed audio for a personal experience of that animal's beating heart. Maybe the recording of the gorilla's heart has a "skip" in it that you can hear and is noted in the graphics. I have listened to a gorilla's heart skip by laying my head on its chest.


Tim Lawrence bends overa gorilla lying on a bed. Just the arms of the gorilla are seen.

EKM: What are your goals for displaying these sculptures?

TL: When I can afford some bronze castings to supplement the plaster work, a museum or gallery show is planned. I would like to raise awareness and involve the public to support this idea – to add this new layer of interaction between the zoo guests and the animals.

EKM: Describe some of your favorite casts. Why are these significant to you?

TL: I really enjoyed wrestling with the giant snapping turtle, Sherman. He's the only animal I've worked with that was not anesthetized. The silverback gorilla, Quito, passed away a few years ago (at age 37), but I worked with him more than once and really liked a cast I had made of his fist. Someone stole that cast a few years ago, and I haven't seen it since. That's a personal loss. It meant a lot and now Quito is gone.


 Tim  Lawrence bends over a snapping turtle in a tub spreading bright blue paint on its shell.

EKM: What are some of your most exciting encounters with zoo animals?

TL: Sometimes the anesthetic wears off. While preparing three chimpanzees for transfer to another zoo, the hospital staff thought there might be time for a quick mold off a paw once an anesthetized animal was moved into their transport pod. There was a doctor on top of the pod of the selected subject, and he waited up there, holding open the "slam gate." After a couple minutes, he advised me to "wrap it up." I saw the chimp's eyes were now fully alert — about six inches from mine and staring hotly into my soul. He couldn't yet move … but he was thinking about it. I stopped, pulled off all the unfinished material, and leaned back while the gate was slammed.

EKM: What are some of the challenges of creating these casts?

TL: Every animal is unique and requires individual consideration. I like to meet the subjects before the day — take photos and measurements and talk to the keepers. The materials must all be measured carefully for use. Temperature of the environment and the water (used for the Alginate mix and the plaster bandage) must be calculated. There is some math.

EKM: Have you shown these casts to your intended audience? How did they react?

TL: Yes, the best event so far has been the North Florida Braille Challenge, and I must thank Chris Eaton at the Downtown Main Library for connecting me with that. It was great watching the kids read with their fingers and pronounce the animal names and compare their hands with the animals' paws.

EKM: How can we follow your work and contribute?

TL: My website,, is under construction but should give a good idea of what I'm up to. I don't know if the Donation buttons are working yet, but if they are, help if you can. Thanks! I'm aiming at a GoFundMe fund-raiser at the end of 2020 in the Fall, so watch the website for updates.

I would like to thank Tony Vecchio and Dan Maloney, the Director and Deputy Director of the JacksonvilleZoo, for their continued support.


Emily K. Michael is a blind poet, musician, and writing instructor from Jacksonville, FL. Her poetry and essays have appeared in Wordgathering, The Hopper, The South Carolina Review, The Deaf Poets Society, Nine Mile Magazine, BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog, and AWP Writer's Notebook. Michael's work centers on ecology, disability, and music. Find more of her work at her blog On the Blink. Her first book Neoteny: Poems is available for pre-order from Finishing Line Press..