FACETIME- Animal attraction: Brindley brings wildlife to Belmont

Hal Brindley sits smiling in the back of the brick-walled Creature Gallery, having just received a call from HGTV. The cable favorite of do-it-yourselfers had received a tip suggesting it give airtime to Brindley's self-built bar, which features thousands of his wildlife slides, lit from beneath and arranged like a mosaic across its expanse.

HGTV is not quite what Brindley had in mind, but any publicity is good publicity for the 35-year-old photographer, who opened the gallery– and soon a restaurant– in order to draw attention to wildlife conservation issues.

"I have been interested in animals my whole life," says Brindley, who recalls that as a child, "I was always collecting specimens and was interested in biology." In addition to birthday trips to the zoo, he remembers his mother gamely helping him to dissect road kill.

Nevertheless, pursuing his animal fascination as a career has been a fairly recent endeavor. Since he'd been a business major with an interest in studio art, Brindley first forayed into custom-printing t-shirts while a student at William & Mary. Later, he turned his craze for BMX bike riding into a moneymaker by founding the sportswear company Play Clothes.

"It got to be a big successful business, with international distribution and six employees," Brindley recalls, "and it just wasn't fun anymore. I got burnt out on it. So I decided to sell the business and do something that was meaningful to me."

Striving to combine his three "main loves"– animals, travel, and artistic expression– seven years ago, Brindley bought a camera and began trekking around the world taking pictures of wildlife.

As his photographic expertise grew, so did his awareness of the need to protect animals and their habitats. Last year, Brindley bought a brick storefront on Hinton Avenue to give the Creature Gallery's a habitat of its own.

"One of my main goals with this place is to help further conservation," he says. "I wanted to do something good with my art to help these animals."

During March, Brindley showcased images of endangered species and partnered with Defenders of Wildlife to urge people to write letters discouraging Congress from weakening the Endangered Species Act.

"He's a thoughtful person who has a wonderful gift for being able to capture the wonder and the comedy of earth's creatures," says Catey Ritchie of The Nature Conservancy, where Brindley often volunteers. "But he also has a knack for capturing the heartbreak."

For the moment, Brindley has put aside photographing orcas and polar bears to build the Creature Gallery's kitchen and restaurant. The new business hurdles are daunting, but he's optimistic. "I think if I was wildly successful at something I didn't give a crap about," Brindley says, "I wouldn't be happy."

Hal Brindley