Food For Thought

An ethical perspective on feeding wildlife for photography

As wildlife photographers, we are continually thinking up ways to get close to our wild subjects, whether it’s how we approach them, conceal ourselves from them or lure them. It’s natural to think of using food as a device. What better way to draw them in than to capitalize on their most urgent need—hunger?

It’s tempting to offer food to wild animals in hopes of drawing them near for better images, but this can teach them behaviors that put them at risk, such as seeking roadside handouts.

There are a number of reasons photographers and others may use food to draw wild animals in. They may want to see the animals up close, seek a compelling photo of them or simply yearn for a deeper sense of connection to nature. People may justify what they are doing with the belief that they are helping the animal. With the proliferation of digital cameras and the ubiquity of camera phones, coupled with social media and the desire to come up with ever-more-riveting shots to garner more likes and shares, there is more pressure than ever before on wildlife, which is increasingly crammed into smaller spaces as human populations swell and sprawl.

Maybe you’re visiting Island Beach State Park in New Jersey where the foxes are famously fed. You hold a leftover cracker out the window to a fox kit you spy near the road because, heck, everyone else is doing it. You get a great shot of that red fox kit approaching you, her face intent, nose pointed directly at you. Just think how many likes you’ll get on Instagram when you post it. What you may not realize is that you are pounding one more nail in that animal’s coffin. Foxes are injured and killed frequently by cars, especially when they have learned roadsides mean handouts and tossed food; a fox’s digestive system is not equipped for your human food; you’re teaching them to trust humans; you’re (one of many) influencing their survival and breeding success, which the local population and landscape may not be capable of supporting over the long run.

I think the question we all need to ask ourselves at the end of the day is, is this the legacy you want to leave with your photography? Are your photos more important than the life of your wild subject?

As I write this, I’m thinking about the latest tragedy for a wild animal that had to be euthanized because people fed and tamed it. A mama black bear in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park, fed fruit by tourists, became aggressive to other cars and people, in search of additional handouts for her and her two cubs. She was killed and the cubs sent to a captive facility in Michigan.

Using food to lure predators can habituate them to situations where they pose a risk to humans, putting them in danger as well.

I don’t know that these bears were fed expressly for photos, but they proved the adage, “A fed bear is a dead bear.” One could substitute the name of any predatory animal in that sentence, from fox to wolverine to alligator. Why is it so dangerous to feed predators? Because most of them are seen as a threat to people, and once their behavior changes such that they approach people with intent, they are invariably doomed. People may want to hurt or to trap them for fur. There is a lot of misunderstanding and fear about wild animals. Foxes and coyotes that have lost their fear of humans cause panic that they’re rabid or looking to prey on children or pets. Where I live, if anyone deems an animal as a threat to their safety, they can kill them outright.

Early on, when I first started out in photography, I came close to making this mistake. I had set up a blind near a fox den on someone’s property. As I watched the six kits flinging chewed-up squirrel carcasses around, I worried they weren’t getting enough to eat. I pondered whether I should bring them some dog kibble, as it might provide some good nutrition and be easy to digest. I thought about it for a day or two, did some research, and realized that would be a big mistake.

Now that I’m much more well-informed, I shudder to think how close I came to being foolish and am grateful I took the time to learn better. Thanks to technology, the answers are at all of our fingertips. We all have a responsibility to seek out that information. Our actions have consequences. As nature and wildlife photographers, most of us want to celebrate and protect the natural world. We must realize that how we interact with it is a crucial component of our practice as photographers.

I’m not suggesting one never feed any wildlife. I have a number of bird feeders in my backyard. There is a large body of research out there on the safety and consequences of feeders. As long as one follows best practices, such as positioning feeders some distance from windows, keeping them clean and properly provisioned, and keeping cats indoors, feeders are benign and can even enhance survival in winter and increase reproductive success in spring.

Using backyard bird feeders is an exception to the admonition against feeding wildlife, as it can actually enhance survival—provided you follow a few sensible guidelines.

I realize that we each have our own moral barometers when it comes to feeding wildlife. I also realize more and more that there are a lot of gray areas in regards to the ethics of photography. However, there are issues and risks that are unmistakable. I’d like to present a set of questions that I hope can help anyone to make thoughtful, ethical decisions in regards to feeding wildlife for photography.

1. Is feeding this animal likely to change its behavior in harmful ways?

Feeding an animal may cause it to associate food with a particular place. Does it draw the animal closer to roads where it could be struck by a car? Feeding owls by the side of the road presents an obvious danger: collisions with vehicles are a leading cause of death for owls, as they fly low over the ground and relatively slowly at times. 

Feeding an animal may lead it to trust people. Could that habituation eventually put it in danger? Is that animal hunted in the general environs for food or trapped for its fur? Does the bird or other animal migrate or move to a region where it’s hunted for food—such as snowy owls, legally hunted in much of Alaska? Not long ago, I learned of a well-known photography instructor leading wild wolf photo workshops in Canada; turns out he is baiting the wolves near blinds. Wolves are legally hunted near this location. How can they ever learn to distinguish humans and nearby food that are safe from humans and nearby food that are unsafe? When photography instructors are teaching students that this is the way to pursue wildlife photography, serious ethical questions are raised.

2. Is the food appropriate and safely provided?

Naturally, the most common place photographers offer food to wild animals is in their backyards. Backyard bird photography is a popular pursuit and can produce wonderful photos. Providing feeders means taking on a responsibility, as in addition to food they present a number of risks to the bird, the spread of viruses and parasites, increased potential for window strikes and falling prey to cats and raptors among them. But if best practices are followed, as mentioned, feeders may actually help birds survive and reproduce.

People also commonly feed birds in parks, often offering bread, which has little nutritional value and can cause “angel wing,” a condition that affects mostly waterfowl, leaving them flightless. This is caused by a nutritional deficiency combined with a high level of carbohydrates and sugars. Better choices would be cracked corn or oats—in moderation, of course, as leftovers from overfeeding can contaminate water, spread diseases, and attract rodents. Again, the information is out there.

3. Is this species at risk?

Information on the status of a species is just a click away. Good sources include state and federal listings and the IUCN Red List, where we can easily discover how a species is doing in our states, provinces, countries or worldwide. If an animal is classified as “threatened,” “endangered” or “of special concern,” that means it is struggling to survive. We must exercise extreme caution when making decisions that might affect it. Even if we have the best intentions, what we think might benefit an animal might actually cause unintended negative consequences.

4. Does feeding this animal violate any laws?

It is illegal to feed any wildlife in national parks. Most states have laws prohibiting the feeding of wild animals. For example, it’s illegal to feed deer, bear and moose in New York. Even local municipalities may have their own ordinances. Penalties can range from fines to imprisonment. Again, such information is readily accessible online.

In sum, when thinking of offering food to wild animals, each one of us can take a little time to do some research and to sensibly weigh the pros and cons of our choices. We can make informed decisions and hopefully balance our desire to get the shot with what’s best for the animals that we are privileged to spend time with.

Melissa Groo is a wildlife photographer, writer and conservationist. She believes that photography can be both fine art and a powerful vehicle for storytelling and education, and considers herself a “wildlife biographer” as much as a wildlife photographer. Passionate about ethics in nature photography, Groo is represented by Nat Geo Creative, a contributing editor to Audubon magazine and an Associate Fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers. She advises the National Audubon Society on ethical photography, and has also counseled National Wildlife magazine and NANPA (North American Nature Photography) on guidelines for ethical wildlife photography. She also serves as a member of NANPA’s Ethics Committee. In 2017, Melissa received the Katie O'Brien Lifetime Achievement Award from Audubon Connecticut, for demonstrating exceptional leadership and commitment to the conservation of birds, other wildlife and their habitats. She also received the NANPA 2017 Vision Award, given to a photographer every two years in recognition of early career excellence, vision and inspiration to others in nature photography, conservation and education.