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Older & Wiser

Ways to expand your access to wildlife photo opportunities with animal welfare in mind
Image of a male rose-breasted grosbeak

Male rose-breasted grosbeak in spring, photographed from my upstairs window.

Outdoor Photographer forwarded this note received from a reader written to me: “After reading your article on the ethics of wildlife photography, I’m feeling pretty guilty about several prints on my wall which were taken at a game farm in Montana. My problem is I’m old. I can’t get out into the wild like I used to years ago. Do you have any suggestions that would help older people like me who aren’t willing to give up their photography?”

Advancing age can definitely place limitations on a photographer’s mobility, strength and energy. It can feel like one’s options are closing down, and that’s scary. Fortunately, there are a wealth of settings, subjects and techniques that can meet the challenge of reduced physical abilities—and that are much more worthwhile and rewarding than photo game farms, which are now widely shunned for a host of reasons.

Look For Local Parks With Accessibility

Wherever you live, you can seek out nature sanctuaries or city parks with accessible trails that make for easy walking. Increasingly, parks, nature preserves, botanical gardens and Audubon sanctuaries are featuring sections that have wheelchair-friendly boardwalks or paths that are a mixture of gravel and natural pine resin. Get there early and visit on weekdays to avoid crowds. What’s especially helpful is that birds and other animals are usually easier to get close to in these places than they would be in the wild, as they are accustomed to seeing people nearby.

So many great online resources now exist to point you toward accessible outings in nature. For instance, Audubon has created the Birdability Map (, a crowd-sourced tool that lets anyone document and view accessibility features of birding locations. The National Park Service offers a map of accessibility in national parks at Or visit Accessible Nature (, a collection of links to places you can go to enjoy nature with minimal obstacles. These trails are either wheelchair accessible or at least very easy walking. 

Visit National Wildlife Refuges

The National Wildlife Refuge System, managed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is a system of public lands and waters set aside to conserve America’s fish, wildlife and plants. There are 568 national wildlife refuges. These lands belong to all of us and are a treasure. Go to their website at and search for ones near you. Refuges offer auto tours, hiking trails, occasional photo blinds and thousands of acres to roam. There are few better places to photograph birds, for example, and few places where you can get better advice from the staff.

Photo blinds on wildlife refuges can be found at Some need to be reserved in advance, and info on how to do that is provided at each refuge link.

Hire A Guide & Tour A National Park

If you can afford traveling to a photo game farm and renting their animals, you can likely afford a guided tour to a wildlife-rich place like Yellowstone National Park or Point Reyes National Seashore. There are capable guides who will drive you around and help you get wonderful photos of all kinds of charismatic animals from the roadside or even just from the vehicle. These guides are used to working with people who have all kinds of limitations.

Sanctuaries & Zoos

Well-regarded sanctuaries and zoos featuring all kinds of exotic wildlife can provide easy access to visitors, often even wheelchair accessible. When you do visit one of these sanctuaries or zoos, you likely won’t have a snow leopard running right toward you on command, but you will be able to witness and capture natural and interesting behavior if you take your time. Good photos can be made, and good stories can be told.

Photo of a rescued tiger at the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colorado

Rescued tiger at ease in his expansive home at the Wild Animal Sanctuary, Keenesburg, Colorado, photographed from the boardwalk.

It’s vital to ensure you choose facilities held to high standards of care by governing bodies made up of experts in the field. Never go by the names that captive wildlife facilities call themselves—sometimes the worst ones masquerade as a so-called “sanctuary” or “refuge.” To find a true sanctuary, look for the seal of approval by GFAS, the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries at

I recently visited the GFAS-accredited Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colorado ( It holds a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest footbridge, an amazing wooden boardwalk that spans a 720-acre habitat, with enclosures for over 500 rescued animals, mostly large carnivores like tigers, bears and lions. (Several of them, I learned, were rescued from deplorable conditions at photo game farms.) I realized while spending time here that it’s also a great place to photograph raptors—especially bald eagles, harriers and kestrels, which were ubiquitous.

Here are other GFAS-accredited sanctuaries I recommend with the potential for good photographic opportunities—and there are many more:

  • In-Sync Exotics, Wylie, Texas
  • Lions Tigers & Bears, Alpine, California
  • Safe Haven Wildlife Sanctuary, Imlay, Nevada
  • WildCat Ridge Sanctuary, Scotts Mills, Oregon

For zoos, look for accreditation by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums at Make sure it’s the AZA and not the ZAA (Zoological Association of America), which is a consortium of roadside zoos with lower standards of animal care.

Listed below are several AZA-accredited zoos, aquariums and wildlife parks across the country that also offer the potential for good photographic opportunities:

  • Alaska SeaLife Center, Seward, Alaska
  • Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Colorado Springs, Colorado
  • Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center, West Yellowstone, Montana
  • The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens, Palm Desert, California
  • Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey, California
  • Northwest Trek Wildlife Park, Eatonville, Washington
  • Oakland Zoo, Oakland, California
  • Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, Omaha, Nebraska
  • San Diego Zoo Safari Park, San Diego, California

Perhaps most importantly, by visiting a GFAS- or AZA-accredited facility, you will know that you are supporting a true haven for animals that does not exist to exploit them merely for profit but instead to give them a quality life with proper nutrition and vet care and naturalistic settings.

Pro tip: To minimize the chance of lines appearing in your photos, press the end of your camera lens directly up against any wiring or fence (as long as this is permitted), and shoot with a large aperture to minimize depth of field. Choose single-point focus or a tight cluster of focus points. Sometimes manual focus can be your friend if you are still struggling with focus.

Rehab & Rehoming Facilities

Working with a local rehab facility is another way to gain access to wildlife without traveling or paying a premium to photograph captive wild animals. A couple of recommended ones that I have photographed at before are The Raptor Trust bird rehabilitation and education center in Millington, New Jersey, and the Teton Raptor Center in Wilson, Wyoming.

Take up pro bono photography of animals in shelters at your local SPCA or Humane Society. By doing this, you can both do some good for the community and have fun taking soulful portraits of animals in need. Most photography at animal shelters is done in a pinch by staff and not always top quality. Bring your own skills to bear on a cat or dog needing someone to fall in love with them and take them home. And while I’m sure game farm photos were a great conversation starter with friends and family, you can get the same reaction with portraits of shelter animals, especially if those images are really well done, and win your friends’ and family’s respect at the same time.

Make The Most Of Your Yard

If you have a yard—even a modest one—attract birds, butterflies and other wildlife by planting native species known to be preferred sources of food for them. Offer bird feeders and a source of water. You can set up a pop-up blind in the yard or even just shoot from inside, sitting in your favorite chair, through an open window or door. Some of my favorite songbird images have been shot from my upstairs bedroom window.

Photo of a gray squirrel

A gray squirrel grasps one of her kits by his neck as she prepares to move him to a different nest cavity. Photographed in my backyard.

Set Up Camera Traps For Elusive Animals

Consider learning the art of camera trapping, which entails putting a camera in a waterproof housing to capture elusive and often nocturnal animals like bobcats, foxes and bears. A sensor detects animals and triggers the camera, and off-camera flashes can be employed to add lighting. Camtraptions and Cognisys are two companies that offer camera trap kits that come ready to deploy.

Set one up on your own property, if you have the space, or at a friend’s. With my camera trap, I’ve managed to capture many images of the cryptic fisher, a weasel that is making a comeback in New York state but is rarely seen. I just set it up and then leave it for weeks. Discovering what’s on the cards feels like Christmas morning every time, even if it’s just a squirrel running along a log with an acorn in his mouth. It definitely takes technical skill, but much of the assembling and planning can be done in the comfort of home, and if you are deploying it in your yard, you don’t have to walk far.

Gear Shifts

If one is not already shooting mirrorless and can afford a new camera, having lightweight gear with great image stabilization (no tripod required) can really help with physical challenges. I know someone whose knees betrayed him after a time. He built a camera rig for his kayak since that was an activity he could still do. This also goes for people who find ways to attach cameras to wheelchairs or scooters. There are countless creative workarounds that can actually make the photography even more meaningful, precisely because of what it takes to get those shots and create a framework around them in the face of physical challenges.

Think Differently & Exercise Patience

Try expanding your sense of nature photography. Train your lens on insects and plants. There is beauty and interest in every living thing. Replace an emphasis on charismatic animals with an appreciation of every species.

Focus on the story. Wildlife stories can be found just about anywhere, with any species, including with a macro lens. There are stories unfolding all around us, wherever we look, some writ large, others on minute scales. Focusing on local wildlife that you see consistently throughout their life cycle can be an incredible and unique way to engage that storytelling process while framing the images in a context that no one else will have. One of the best stories I ever captured was of a mama squirrel moving her babies one by one from one tree cavity to another.

Above all, note that as my friend and fellow photographer Ingrid Taylar says, “Patience is a virtue of wisdom and maturity, and nobody gets that perfect shot of a chipmunk pair sparring or a cottontail visiting her hidden brood at dawn without plenty of it.” Let your imagination and your creativity soar. I promise they will open doors to many photographic opportunities for many years to come, and you’ll be able to hang photos on your wall that you’re truly proud of.

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.