Shortcuts That Shortchange Wildlife Photography

Put the welfare of your wildlife photo subjects first by avoiding practices that endanger and exploit them
Coyote in Yellowstone by Melissa Groo

Coyote crossing a busy road in Yellowstone National Park.

Photography of wild animals is challenging. My own statistics depress me sometimes; roughly 90 percent of the time I head out to photograph wildlife, I end up with nothing. Mostly it’s because I just don’t find any. If I do, they’re beating a hasty retreat before I can even raise my camera, or the light’s bad or coming from the wrong angle. Maybe the animal’s head is turned away, a twig covers her eye, or my camera settings were off for those two seconds she stayed still.

When things do work out and I successfully capture the image that I had imagined and planned for, the satisfaction is particularly intense. The hard-won success makes all those efforts seem worth it. I’ve come to realize that the frustration is simply part and parcel of wildlife photography, which often involves significant time, expense and effort. We are, after all, trying to encounter wild animals who have an instinctive sense of self-preservation, and a well-deserved fear of us humans.

After we repeatedly try and fail to photograph a target species, it’s natural to want to think of a way to persuade it to approach us. As one of animals’ primary concerns is food, one thing we do is offer seed to birds at our feeders. The research is clear: as long as we properly place, clean and provision feeders, the only risk to songbirds is perhaps making them an easier target for roving Cooper’s or sharp-shinned hawks. (At that point, it’s best to stop feeding the birds until the predator has left the area.)

Risks multiply when we offer food to a different sort of animal: predators. News stories and anecdotal reports of wildlife watchers and photographers capitalizing on the hunger of foxes, coyotes, owls and wolves in order to lure them closer seem to be increasing. What many people may not realize is that predators habituate readily to food rewards. Once one human proves a source, all humans start to look like possible sources. The problem is that for every one of us who cherishes these animals, there are dozens of people who don’t understand or like them. And once something like a coyote begins to directly approach humans looking for handouts, it’s often labeled a “nuisance animal” and killed. Sometimes they are killed by cars (especially foxes and owls) as fed animals will frequent roadways, knowing cars may mean humans with food.

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Do we want to expose animals to these risks by rewarding them with food to come near us? As nature lovers and photographers, I don’t think any of us do. But unwittingly we may be ushering them to a sad fate when we believe feeding them is OK.

Steve Cain, recently retired as senior wildlife biologist for Grand Teton National Park after more than 25 years, shared his thoughts with me on feeding wildlife in parks. “First, feeding wildlife in any way, shape or form is against federal regulations in national parks,” Cain explains. “These are places where natural ecological processes are emphasized. They are fragile and precious systems. Feeding of wildlife has no place in the mix. Second, and most importantly, the pattern of getting more and more aggressive seeking handouts is the same with all animals, and it can and usually does end with the animals being killed as a result.”

Yellowstone National Park’s web site shares a story about a fox “trapped and relocated three times from the Tower Fall parking area because visitors fed it human food. It was relocated between 10 to 60 miles away from Tower, but twice it returned. Finally, the fox came to Mammoth, where it was fed again and as a result was destroyed.” The park goes on to emphasize, “A fed animal is a dead animal—good or bad, the park service will destroy animals that are habituated to human contact and food.”

Owl by Melissa Groo

While baiting wildlife for photo opportunities may seem harmless, it can be very detrimental to the animal. Predators habituate readily to food rewards, which can lead to tragic interactions as fed animals will frequent roadways and other areas where humans are present. Feeding wildlife is against federal regulations in national parks.

This deadly outcome is often the case not just in our national parks but anywhere that humans and predators overlap. Animal control and state wildlife agencies are tasked with euthanizing predators that have lost their wariness of people due to food conditioning.

Some photographers seek out captive animals, as they offer a convenient way to practice technical skills and to photograph species difficult if not impossible to see in the wild. The term “captive” includes a vast range of situations, from zoos to rehabilitation centers to game farms. Quality of life and care is also widely divergent, as strict standards exist for some kinds of places and not at all for others. For instance, zoos that are members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) are governed by a code of professional ethics; game farms, on the other hand, are not governed by any standard of care by an overseeing entity.

Imagine a place where you can photograph Siberian tigers, snow leopards or lynx kittens free from the confines of a cage, in settings that resemble their native habitats—this is the allure of a game farm. Though longstanding businesses in states like Montana and Minnesota remain destinations for some photographers who seek willing animal models, they have fallen out of favor with many pros. Some see them as little more than “wildlife brothels,” ethically compromised places where animals confined to lifelong imprisonment in small enclosures are trotted out—or driven long distances in a trailer—only to run through their paces for paying customers. Treatment of the animals is a contentious issue. One pro photographer who used to conduct workshops at a popular game farm witnessed a grizzly bear being “handled” with a cattle prod so it would stand and curl its lip in a growl for dramatic photos.

Game farm photos once had a decent chance of adding value to a portfolio: Mountain lions captured mid-leap between boulders; bobcat kittens posed perfectly on a log; a wolf peering out from a stand of trees. The models are always perfectly coiffed, devoid of unsightly scars or injuries. For years, wildlife and hunting magazines were ready and willing markets, and stock agencies supplied them with a steady stream of these images.

Times have changed. Stock photography is, for the most part, moribund. Photos of charismatic, elusive animals posed perfectly in pristine settings are a dime a dozen and have saturated the market. Many magazine editors and photo contests now prohibit game farm photo submissions. Attitudes among photographers have also changed, with many viewing these staged photos of captive animals as a gut-punch to the integrity of wildlife photography. Imagine a photographer who spends months working from a blind to ethically capture images of wild wolves. How can their photos compete with a perfect one achieved in two days by photographers who aren’t willing or able to spend the time, effort or expense to get those shots in the wild? The photographs of truly wild animals that are the counterpart to these captive animal shots get lost in the shuffle of perfect photos. The result is a loss of credibility and integrity to the profession.

Some game farm proponents argue that photographing these animals in captivity means less pressure and intrusion on these animals in the wild. That argument doesn’t hold water in these days of camera traps, increasingly used to capture elusive animals and as non-intrusive as you can get when thoughtfully set up. One pro photographer argues that game farms may actually be increasing stress on animals in the wild. Jess Lee used to take photography clients to game farms but is now a vocal opponent. He maintains that these images may be influencing the way photographers behave in the field. In a quest to compete with these photos that depict a rare animal close-up in an ideal setting, photographers may be pushing the limits of ethical practices. Lee believes that many photographers don’t know enough about wildlife behavior to understand the consequences of trying to recreate game farm scenes in the wild, and that as these unethical actions become more pronounced, all wildlife photographers will become more restricted due to changes in regulations.

In sum, no image is worth more than the subject and its welfare. I firmly believe that fantastic photographs of wildlife are possible without making choices that compromise animals or the integrity of our work, and I am grateful that most wildlife photographers I know operate this way, too.

If you agree, and want to know what you can do to support a more ethical culture in wildlife photography, here are some things to consider. Thinking about a workshop that promises close-up photos of an elusive wild wolf or owl? Ask before enrolling: “How can you guarantee getting near these subjects? Is food being offered?” One workshop leader offers wolf photography workshops from blinds, baiting them with food nearby. What if this leads them to associate people with food? The wolves are safe in the non-hunting area where the workshops occur, but once they wander outside of this area, they are fair game for the many hunters who target them.

Red fox by Melissa Groo

Red fox approaches a vehicle, possibly hoping for a handout.

Keep in mind that game farm photos and baited shots are ineligible for many photo contests and magazines. If interested in conservation photography, organizations like the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP) are deeply concerned with ethics in photography and have taken strong stands against game farms as well.

If the workshop is focused on captive animals, ask questions. Are they rescued animals? Are they being bred? Do they have any connection to canned hunting operations? Do they belong to any organization that holds them to high standards? If you’re going to a zoo, for instance, make sure it holds AZA membership.

Label your photos of captive animals appropriately, even on social media. Truth in captioning is critical. Value your own honesty and integrity, and others will, too.

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.