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Image: Handsome One, Thoroughbred Horse, Age 33
Isa Leshko  /  Isa Leshko
Handsome One, thoroughbred horse, age 33.
By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 3/7/2012 12:49:19 PM ET 2012-03-07T17:49:19

It’s been said that old age is the most unexpected of all the things that can happen to a person. But is it even more unexpected when it happens to a pig, or a horse, or a sheep, or a turkey?

Isa Leshko has given a lot of thought to that question. The 40-year-old fine-art photographer is in the crucible right now, caring for a mother with Alzheimer’s disease and realizing that the woman she always knew as Mom is gone. Leshko couldn’t bring herself to photograph her mother in such a state of decline and vulnerability — but, almost irresistibly, she became fascinated by aging animals and began photographing them instead.

What began as a therapeutic pastime blossomed into a full-fledged project. Though the issues they raise are heavy, her photographs of elderly animals are touching and beautiful.

“I am terrified of growing older,” Leshko confessed. “Taking care of my mother solidified this fear ... I have realized that I’m photographing elderly animals as a means of confronting my fear of aging, and I’m immersing myself in that fear in order to dilute its power over me.”

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Slideshow: Eye contact: Mesmerizing images of elderly animals (on this page)

‘Moments of happiness’
Leshko has learned something on her four-year photographic journey: While it’s relatively common to see pet dogs and cats live to a ripe old age, it’s highly unusual to encounter an elderly farm animal or a geriatric wild animal. To find photo subjects, she’s traveled around the country to animal sanctuaries — havens for aging wolves, geese, monkeys, roosters and more.

At 51, is this the oldest horse in the world?

She keeps her gear to a minimum (goats, in particular, enjoy rooting around camera bags), and she spends hours with animals on multiple visits so they grow accustomed to her. Sometimes she’ll just lie on the ground near the animals for hours without taking a single shot.

“Animals are actually very challenging to photograph in a meaningful way,” said Leshko, who lives in Philadelphia. “It’s really easy to create images that are cute or anthropomorphic, and I’m definitely aware of that risk. My goal is to create images that are nuanced and honest, not sentimental.”

That’s what makes the photos so special — and so arresting. When seeing a 33-year-old horse or a 28-year-old goose depicted in a dignified yet unflinching way, it’s difficult not to dwell on the inevitabilities humans and animals share.

And, regardless of where a person falls on the meat-eating vs. vegetarian spectrum, it’s also hard to avoid thinking about an animal’s ability to experience pain and fear, as well as pleasure and contentment.

Image: Teresa, Yorkshire Pig, Age 13.
Isa Leshko
Teresa, Yorkshire pig, age 13.
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Consider the tale of Teresa, a 13-year-old Yorkshire pig featured in Leshko’s “Elderly Animals” series. When she was 6 months old, Teresa and other unnaturally overweight pigs were loaded onto a three-tier truck bound for a slaughterhouse. The driver opted to stop, drink and rest in Washington, D.C., and he left the truck parked on a downtown street. People heard loud squeals coming from the truck and called to report it — and, ultimately, the truck and the animals were confiscated.

When found, the pigs were dehydrated, filthy and extremely stressed, and they could barely walk because of their size and swollen joints. Some died from their conditions — but Teresa, for one, got sent to the Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, N.Y., where Leshko found her more than a decade later.

On the day of Teresa’s photo shoot, the pig was resting on some hay and making soft little grunts as she basked in the sun. Her unabashed contentment deeply affected Leshko.

“This animal was still able to find moments of happiness in her life after what she had experienced,” Leshko said. “It still chokes me up when I think about it.”

Older cats, dogs need homes
Leshko has not completely banished her fears of aging. She happens to look very much like her 72-year-old mother, so quick glances in the mirror can give her an eerie sense of time travel.

Image: Isa Leshko at work
Courtesy of Walley Films
Isa Leshko uses a manual film camera and describes herself as a "ruthless" self-editor. "I discard much of what I shoot," she said.

Leshko’s mother now lives in a nursing home equipped to care for Alzheimer’s patients. Her maternal grandmother also had dementia when she was older.

“I’m terrified of developing it too,” Leshko said. “Whenever I lose my keys or forget an appointment — or forget anything — I get nervous.”

Despite that, she’s encouraged by the aging animals she’s encountered. She loves it when an animal stares down her camera with defiance and self-assurance, and she noted that every animal she’s photographed is a testament to a powerful desire to live. Even the ones with serious physical limitations and harrowing backgrounds, like Teresa, still manage to find joy and pleasure in life.

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Though she didn’t intend for it to happen at the project’s outset, Leshko has become passionate about encouraging people to adopt elderly companion animals.

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“These animals generally do not fare well in shelters because people prefer to adopt kittens and puppies,” she said. “Yet, older animals can be wonderful companions and there are numerous advantages to adopting a mature animal.” 

She’s worked with the Friends for Life no-kill shelter in Houston, Texas, where she met two lovable 16-year-old cats named Casanova and Romeo. The cats are brothers, and they have no health problems or behavioral issues.

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“They had been surrendered to the shelter simply because they were old,” Leshko said. “These two cats were beautiful and sweet and their only flaw was that they were old. It was heartbreaking.”

Leshko knows her desire to generate greater empathy for elderly animals — and to explore aging overall — might be a hard sell in a culture obsessed with youth. But she’s glad to be photographing older animals anyway.

“I’ve come to realize that these images are self-portraits, or at the very least, they’re manifestations of my fears and hopes about what I will be like when I’m old,” Leshko said. “I want them to inspire others ... to engage with their own attitudes toward aging and mortality.”

To see more of Isa Leshko’s “Elderly Animals” images and learn more about her work, check out this slideshow and visit Leshko’s website. You also can visit exhibitions of Leshko’s photography in Houston and Pittsburgh soon. Her show at the Houston Center for Photography runs from April 27 to June 23, and her show at the Silver Eye Center for Photography in Pittsburgh opens in mid-May.

Need a Coffey break? Friend TODAY.com writer Laura T. Coffey on Facebook, follow her on Twitter  or read more of her stories at LauraTCoffey.com.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Photos: Eye contact: Mesmerizing images of elderly animals

loading photos...
  1. ‘Elderly Animals’

    Fine-art photographer Isa Leshko has spent years capturing images of aging animals. Her photographs appear here, along with the name, breed and age of the animals whenever possible.

    Handsome One, thoroughbred horse, age 33. (Isa Leshko) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Marino

    Bronze turkey, age 5. (Isa Leshko) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Violet

    Potbellied pig, age 12. (Isa Leshko) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Pumpkin

    Morgan Arabian horse, age 28. (Isa Leshko) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Finn sheep

    Both age 12. (Isa Leshko) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Embden goose

    Age 28. (Isa Leshko) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Embden goose

    Age 28. (Isa Leshko) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Kelly

    Irish wolfhound, age 11. (Isa Leshko) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Rooster

    Age unknown. (Isa Leshko) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Kiri

    Great Plains wolf, age 17. (Isa Leshko) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Blue

    Australian kelpie, age 19.

    To see more of Isa Leshko’s “Elderly Animals” images and learn more about her work, visit her website. (Isa Leshko) Back to slideshow navigation
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