A deep admiration for nature has led
many to another level of appreciation--the craft of wildlife photography.
Unfortunately, not all who photograph wildlife do so out of caring and
with respect for our fellow beings. In fact, the behavior of many
photographers, both amateur and professional, can only be described as
disrespectful, disruptive and sometimes dangerous to the animals they are
For example, every spring in
Yellowstone you are sure to see a large group of photographers standing
around--or even sitting on lawn chairs--talking loudly right outside some
poor badger’s birthing den, waiting for the family to emerge. Though these
folks may think nothing of the clamor of a rowdy bar or ball game, how
would they like to live next door to that bar or ball field, or wake up to
the racket of an expectant crowd of photojournalists right outside their
In response to this kind of
ill-behavior, which invariably results in the harassment or endangerment
of wildlife, informal guidelines have been established to spell out just
how close, in yards or feet, one should get to an individual animal,
depending on that species’ tolerance zone.
But rather than memorizing numbers
and gauging distances, perhaps it would be easier for photographers and
wildlife observers to apply the golden rule in each and every situation.
However, instead of the old, oversimplified rule, “Do unto others as you
would have them do unto you,” why not adopt a revised golden rule that
takes into account the differences between ourselves and other species?
Maybe something like, “Do unto others as you think they would have you do
unto them.” In other words, try to envision what the animals’ needs and
self interests are and take into consideration how their lives in the wild
are different from our own. Empathy, the intellectual or emotional
identification with another--or the ability to relate to others--is
essential for maintaining ethical standards when photographing wildlife.
Last spring I watched from a distance
as the annual gathering of noisy photographers was posted outside the
entrance of a badger den. They were so deep in conversation and oblivious
to their surroundings that none of them noticed as the mother badger
finally made a break for it in hopes of procuring food for her young. The
day before, I had photographed the same badger den from across a road with
a 600mm telephoto lens fitted with a 2X extender to bring the subject in
closer without actually getting close.
Because I remained on the opposite
side of the road and well away from the den, quietly giving them the space
they needed to engage in their activities and enjoy the sunny day, the
badger and her young came and went freely, without paying me any notice.
A national Park like Yellowstone can
be the perfect place for photographing animals without causing them undue
stress. Since they know they are safe from hunting within park boundaries,
“game species” are not so distrustful of human presence. Although many
species are easily viewable from park roadways, they are much less
concerned about vehicles than people approaching on foot. Staying in your
car makes wildlife feel more comfortable, and your vehicle makes a great
blind for photographing animals calmly going about their business. Some of
my best photos have been taken out of the window of my rig.
Other examples of photographer
misconduct include trimming away vegetation--that may conceal a nest or
den from people and predators--to get a clearer photo, throwing food to
attract animals, and the all-too-common habit of yelling or honking at an
elk, a bison or a family of bears so they will look toward the camera. By
using empathy we can begin to recognize changes in behavior and respect
the signals animals use to convey to us that we are irritating them or
getting too close for their comfort. Every year irresponsible
photographers are gored by bison, trampled by moose, or charged by bears.
When these animals are annoyed to the point that they feel the need to
defend themselves, chances are they will suffer or die for it in the end.
Thoughtless conduct can also force animals to leave their familiar
surroundings, interrupt natural activities necessary for survival, or even
separate mothers from their young.
Outdoor Photographer magazine ran an
article in January/February 2000 on “Tips for Photographing Eagles” with
the sub-heading “A long lens, the right location and a sensitive approach
can get you excellent images of these majestic birds”. The author of the
article, Bill Silliker, Jr. wrote, “If you don’t have a long lens, don’t
push it. Ethical wildlife photography requires that we forego attempts to
photograph wildlife when we’re not equipped for it or if the attempt might
harass or somehow place the subject in jeopardy. Be satisfied with images
that show an eagle in its habitat. Editors use those too.”
The other day a neighbor stopped by
and, upon seeing the small herd of black-tailed deer who found refuge on
my land, asked if I was a hunter. When I said, “No, I’m a wildlife
photographer,” he shrugged and replied, “It’s all shooting.”
Well, yes and no. The obvious, major
difference is that the animals “shot” with a camera do not end up dead.
But because there are similarities to hunting, many people approach
wildlife photography with a similar mind-set.
It’s laughable to see photographers
in a national park camouflaged from head-to-toe, sometimes including face
paint, photographing a bull elk as he calmly grazes alongside the
road--fully aware of their presence. And I couldn’t count how many times
I’ve seen tourists run right up to a bear, elk, bison, or moose with a
tiny disposable camera to get their close-up “trophy” photo. They seem to
think it’s only fair--that they are entitled to get closer--since they
don’t have a large telephoto for their camera. But if they were to examine
their motives they would realize that their behavior is not fair to the
animal. Is their trophy more important than the well-being of the subject
of their photo?
At the height of disregard, some
photographers will use hounds fitted with radio collars to pursue and
corner bears, bobcats, or cougars for close-up photos of these more
elusive species. If they are “lucky”, they might even catch the animal
snarling in response--just the way any number of hunting magazines like to
portray them on their covers or in juicy, two-page fold-outs. But how
would they feel if they had to flee for their lives, chased down by a pack
of dogs until they were exhausted or treed, just so someone could get a
picture of them? Wildlife photography should not be thought of as a sport
or challenge against nature, or the against the animals who did not
volunteer for the game. Would it be considered ethical to make sport of
photographing unwilling human subjects?
Unethical practices of those who
photograph wildlife for self-serving purposes have given the whole field a
bad name. Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature has proposed a
moratorium on new wildlife photos, to prevent further aggravation of
endangered animals. He argues there are plenty of photos already out there
for use in prints and publications. As more incidents of unethical
behavior by photographers occur, the privilege of photographing wild
animals will become more and more restricted. Still, no amount of
harassment or disruption of wildlife in any way justifies the increasingly
popular use of game farms by so-called wildlife photographers.
Too often, the "wild" animal seen in
a publication or promotional is actually a captive animal sentenced to
life on a game farm. Game farms use high fences, costing upwards of
$8,000.00 per mile, to keep their preferred, sometimes exotic species in.
These fences also effectively keep the native migratory wildlife out,
thereby taking up valuable habitat.
While many game farms profit directly
from the hunting of animals in their enclosures, others appear relatively
innocuous, charging only for public viewing and private photographic
sessions with "wildlife models," including crowd-pleasing kittens, cubs,
or fawns bred specifically for that purpose.
But as these animals get older and
less photogenic, they are auctioned off as "surplus" to the highest
bidders--a common practice of zoos as well. It is likely the same animals
that appeared as cute babies on calendars, greeting cards, or other
publications will end up a few years later at another game farm that does
profit from the canned hunting of them.
Most photographers and photo editors
do not differentiate between wild or captive animals when selling and
publishing images. Using photos shot at game farms supports those who
profit from exploiting animals by keeping them captive to serve as models
for photographers, entertainment for tourists, or targets for trophy
hunters. At the same time, these photos set a new, unnatural standard for
closeness and intimacy with animals that the public expects to see in
every future image.
And while on the subject of ethics,
how ethical is it to top off a day of photographing waterfowl or ungulates
with a dinner of poultry or red meat?
Don’t all living beings deserve our
compassion and respect? I had long heard that animals feel less threatened
by someone who does not eat meat, but I wondered how long a human could
survive without consuming the flesh of others. After six years as a vegan,
I can attest to the fact that wild animals are not as fearful of me now,
and that saying no to animal protein is healthier and easier than I ever
would have imagined.
When we are caught up in the thrill
of the moment, trying to capture wildlife images, it’s all too easy to
forget that our subjects are living beings with interests of their own.
But if we use empathy, putting ourselves in the animal’s place, our
actions will cause a minimum of intrusion into the lives of these animals
and the wild areas they call home.