Wild In Captivity?

How to make informed choices when photographing captive wildlife
Wild bobcat

Wild bobcat along the Madison River, West Yellowstone, Montana. The most rewarding wildlife images come from the patient observation of subjects in their natural habitats.

The term “captive wildlife” seems like such a contradiction in terms. How can creatures that are caged or fenced in and handed their food have any trace of wild life left in them, without the ability to roam far and wide, to hunt or forage, to establish their own territories, search for mates, and keep their distance from other species—all the things that are characteristic of truly wild animals? 

When people think of wildlife in captivity, they may first think of zoos. However, there is a huge range of places that house captive animals, variously called sanctuaries, rescues, refuges, reserves, camps, game farms, menageries, wildlife centers, adventure or safari parks and ranches, among other names. The world of captive wildlife is a sprawling industry that is poorly regulated. The range of circumstances that these animals find themselves in run the gamut from superb to horrid, and the conditions are closely linked to the owners’ motivation for keeping those animals captive. Motivations, as with most human endeavors, range from purely altruistic to purely mercenary and include all the points in between.

For nature photographers, captive wildlife can provide compelling and convenient opportunities for photography. Some people aren’t able or don’t want to travel to far-flung places to find wildlife. Having a guaranteed subject that can’t run or fly away offers real opportunities for artistic experimentation. Furthermore, reputable photo contests often have categories for zoo or captive photography.

So how do we choose facilities that aren’t in the business of exploiting wildlife? It’s easy to be fooled by words that sound reassuring. Any operation can slap the word “sanctuary” on a sign and visitors will accept it at face value. Perhaps they’ll even assume that the facility had to pass some sort of test to be designated as a sanctuary. But the truth is it simply had to procure an exhibitor license from the USDA. Pseudo-sanctuaries abound in this country, masquerading as havens for captive wildlife, while in reality consigning them to grim lives in captivity only for the sake of profit. A true sanctuary gives exotic animals that cannot be released back into the wild for various reasons a place to live the rest of their lives in security and comfort, in a setting that resembles their natural habitat as much as possible.

Three basic questions can be applied to any facility, no matter what it calls itself, to help determine whether it’s in the business of exploiting captive wildlife:

  • Does it trade animals?
  • Does it breed animals?
  • Does it offer direct contact with its animals?

If we genuinely care about the welfare of our subjects, the answer to each of these questions should be a solid “No.”

Sometimes it’s tough to find out the answers to the first two questions. Trading and breeding practices are often well-kept secrets. Fortunately, there are highly reputable accrediting bodies that have done a lot of the research so we don’t have to. A great starting point is the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFSA), which lists true sanctuaries according to high standards. If interested in visiting a zoo, we can check to make sure that it’s accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA). Note that the AZA is distinct from the Zoological Association of America (ZAA), a recently formed, somewhat controversial coalition with a decidedly confusing acronym. Although some may debate whether every AZA-accredited operation offers the quality of life to a captive animal that some of us would wish, these places are certainly held to rigorous standards of care.

Captive wildlife: great horned owl

Captive Great Horned Owl, Teton Raptor Center, Jackson, Wyoming. If you choose to photograph wildlife in captivity, research the facility to be sure that its practices are ethical and that it places the welfare of the animals above all else.

If you come across a photography workshop and the leader is promising amazing shots of elusive animals like wolves, bobcats, mountain lions, lynxes and even snow leopards, he or she will be taking you to a photography game farm. The most frequented ones are in Montana and Minnesota. These are captive-wildlife businesses that you won’t see endorsed or recommended by the AZA, GFSA or any group that holds members accountable to high humane standards. That’s because these places exist to make money from genetically wild, captive animals displayed for paying photographers, filmmakers and artists. They are kept in cages except when trotted out to perform for customers, their handlers close by to provide treats or prods. Beautiful, truly exotic animals like amur leopards, snow leopards and lynxes, in addition to native wildlife like foxes, bobcats and weasels, perform like professional models for the camera. Well-trained, they surge through snow toward the camera and pose perfectly on picturesque logs or in the crook of a tree. They look impeccable, with no signs of injury, ratty coats or lean times. How easy for photographers to feel like this is a dream come true! I get it. I really do. But it’s all a big fat lie.

Let me make it perfectly clear: An animal kept solely for profit is an exploited animal. A game farm is nothing more than a wildlife brothel. These are genetically wild animals, many of them designed by nature to cover dozens of miles a day in the wild, but instead bred and born into lives of servitude and confinement in cages. What happens if they’re not good performers—if they are too much themselves? One game farm in Montana killed eight of its wolves, deeming them too “dangerous” (that is, wild).Do we really want to support a business that kills its captive animals for simply being what they are?

Another game farm in Montana, perhaps the most well-known, famously violated the Animal Welfare Act by declawing a 2-month-old tiger cub. Declawing a big cat involves not only the removal of the claws—it is the amputation of the bone that contains the claw. That means cutting off the last knuckles of the paws, through bone, tendons, skin and nerves, which disables the normal function of the paw. It’s like having the last joint of each of our fingers and toes amputated. Was this done for the sake of the animal? No, it was done for the sake of the trainers, for the sake of profit, for the sake of exploitation. Do we want to support these kinds of practices with our money?

The most disturbing aspect of these places is that they are the exotic version of puppy mills, churning out new batches of photo cubs and kittens every spring. Baby bobcats, lynxes and mountain lions pose adorably on stumps or among wildflowers for photographers. Capitalizing on that cuteness, some photographers run “Baby Animal” workshops every spring and summer. Once they outgrow their cute stage, most of these young will become “surplus animals,” their fate largely unknown to the public, although investigations find some ending up at facilities that are little more than roadside zoos. How can our photos be worth creating this demand and ensuring this supply?

Fortunately, game farm images aren’t publishable in most magazines anymore and aren’t allowed in any reputable national or international contests, as these businesses are widely acknowledged in the photo industry as unethical. However, they are prolific on social media, especially Instagram, where perfectly coiffed snow leopards fly toward the camera and mountain lions are caught mid-leap between boulders. The photographers rarely even admit these are captive or that a handler is just out of the frame. Sometimes they purposely lead viewers to believe this was a once-in-a-lifetime, even risky encounter in the wild where their own lives were in danger.

Finally, there’s an overarching moral issue here that has to do with the fact that we wield so much power over animals. How can we use that power for good, not harm? Captive animals have no choice about where they end up, but wehave a choice about the kinds of facilities we want to support with our money and time. We owe it to captive wildlife everywhere to support the places that truly respect and dignify them, not breed and relegate them to a life of performing for our photographic thrills. Do your research. Put your money to good, ethical use. Make your choices matter. The animals are counting on you.

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.