Wild vs: Captive Wildlife Photography

Have you ever seen a great mountain lion picture that’s captioned “Mountain Lion, Montana”? How about baby mountain lions and bobcats, perfectly composed, a perfect background, with catch light in the eye? Black bears posed in trees, pausing long enough to make the perfect picture, tigers and snow leopards in deep powder, backed by an azure blue sky – wildlife photography at its very best, right? Do you know the saying “if it looks too good to be true, it probably is”? Many of those “great” images are made in game farms where animals are raised for photography and cinematography.

Years ago, I participated in a Montana photo workshop to help me become a full-time pro photographer. The comprehensive 12-day workshop included a day at a Montana game farm, to learn how to make great wildlife images. (I had mixed feelings about being there, but it was part of the workshop.) We arrived in early morning and after a brief meeting, walked to a rock outcropping, lining up our tripods in quiet anticipation. The handler released a beautiful, tawny and copper-colored female mountain lion and cajoled her into position with cubes of meat. She was young, maybe a year and a half old, and her wild streak led her off the hill a few times; but the handler repositioned the cat until we all had shot too many rolls of film to count. It is still challenging work, getting everything just right, especially when a roll of film only allowed 36 exposures before opening the camera back and loading another cartridge. The rest of the morning continued with an adult bobcat perched on a snag, an adorable baby bobcat peeking through tall grass, and a badger thrashing in his little cage, then sneering at us when positioned in the grass – just like in nature. I probably shot 40 rolls that day and had many keepers. We finished up by visiting the pens where the animals live between assignments. That was the moment when I decided I would never photograph game farm animals again. Looking back, that was probably the moment that confirmed my path as a conservation photographer.

The cages were clean, but too small. I was hypnotized by the rhythm of a pacing grizzly, saw the black bear that wouldn’t turn towards us, the tiger lying in the corner, then the snow leopard. There in Montana, the most majestic and mysterious creature of the Himalaya looked straight into my eyes. For one moment, those blue-green eyes pierced mine and I looked away. I don’t like to anthropomorphize, but what I saw was no wild soul, I thought I saw an animal begging to be free… and I felt ashamed for intruding, so I looked away the only time I’ll ever see a snow leopard up close.

The truth is that many, but not all, of the wild cat images we see published are of captive animals. And there’s good reason, it’s hard to get sharp, well-composed pictures of secretive, nocturnal animals in perfect light. Editors (some), and for lack of a better word, an ignorant public fuel the demand for these images. It’s hard to make a living as a wildlife photographer, and there’s an insatiable demand for images. Wildlife documentaries are a multi-billion dollar industry. Who has time to sit and wait, set camera traps, use blinds, and simply walk away if the animal subject is threatened by a photographer’s presence? The photographers that make up The International League of Photographers are among a growing number of photographers who have made a wild pledge. ILCP photographers agree to a lengthy ethics declaration that includes language about captive animal photography and proper captioning. In a new Audubon Magazine article, ILCP President Cristina Mittermeier says, “There are no standards for the care of game-farm animals. They’re rented out for profit. I find that sickening. We don’t even know how many game farms there are. They give nothing back to habitat conservation.” The article, titled “Picture Perfect” exposes the game farm photography industry, publishers who buy the photos, and calls for truth in captioning. “Picture Perfect” also gives recognition to ILCP photographers who use their expertise and put in the time to capture wild animals in their wild habitat. If you ever question whether an editor is publishing images of captive animals as wild, send them a note and ask about their standards for using game farm models. An educated public can hold these publishers to a higher standard of accountability.

Without getting preachy, this issue is about choice. It’s not only a choice of principal over potential personal gain, but a chance to soul search and make an important decision about core values. Can you make an image without consideration for the subject? Can you sell that image? Are you willing to be part of a multi-billion dollar industry that exploits animals and presents them as wild? (Editors need to ask themselves the same questions.) I had probably already decided, but the snow leopard made the decision for me. Yet, for some reason, I kept those images in my files all of these years. Neatly packaged in archival slide pages… for what? I’m purging these slides to be free of the weight that has sat uncomfortably on my shoulders, knowing that I once photographed at a game farm. They went in the trash today, pictures of animals that never had a chance to be wild and free.

Just last week, I posted an image of a black-footed ferret that I photographed in an outdoor pen at the National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center. Someone reading this might think “that guy’s a hypocrite”; so let’s pause and look at the situation. Black-footed ferrets are the most endangered mammal in North America and raised in captivity to be reintroduced in the wild. There is currently one live ferret in the wild in the state of Colorado (none on the prairie); and at the time I was working on my Prairie Thunder book. It’s pretty hard to tell the story of the prairie dog ecosystem without ferrets in the story, so it was a very easy decision to ask for special access to the Conservation Center. That I was able to get access speaks to the importance of conservation photography to tell these stories. I think it’s a pretty straightforward choice to photograph an endangered species at a Conservation Center – which often include zoos – when working as an advocate for wild animals and wild places. Consider that the animals are not raised for financial gain and the pleasure of photography and the decision gets that much easier.

I’ll offer one more personal example of where I draw the line. There is an urban greenbelt near my home that is well known for red fox. Many photographers roam the trails and make amazing red fox images in a natural environment. But, the public feeds the foxes, and sadly, so do some of the photographers. I encountered one of those photographers on a spring day, photographing a relatively rare black phase red fox. He excitedly told me of the images he was making, then tossed another dog treat. I told the photographer he was cheating, left, and haven’t been back since. Although I would never bait a mammal for photographs, I can’t be associated with this sort of unethical photography – people would think that’s how I make wildlife images – with dog food.

Moving away from the captive discussion, it’s hard to express the gratification and joy of photographing wild animals without disturbing behavior. I often use my vehicle as a blind, with a 600mm lens on a window mount. Many wild animals are used to seeing cars and don’t associate the vehicle with the two-legged threat inside. I frequently approach large mammals on foot and use hunting techniques to inch my way within an acceptable photography range. Blinds are useful for ground-nesting birds and lekking birds like sage grouse, burrowing owls, and song birds. Remote photography and camera traps round out the options for photographing in the wild without altering animal behavior. And as odd as it may sound, I talk quietly to animals and always thank them for letting me share their space.

Photographers – Here’s a chance to do something positive. Sign this Wild Photos Declaration and confirm that you are a photographer committed to ethical wildlife photography.

8 thoughts on “Wild vs: Captive Wildlife Photography

  1. As well as the welfare issues I think there are journalist ethics of misrepresentation and lying about what you are showing. It really annoys me that some well known wildlife magazines still use fake pictures when they have the choice not to.There is something beautiful about the truth and a picture of a wild animal will always win over a fat over feed one. As you say technology is so good nowadays that you can get pretty much any picture without cheating.

  2. Really good essay, Dave! One other aspect of this issue is that, as the public becomes increasingly aware of these matters, it will begin to distrust all wildlife photography, and the brilliant work of folks who are doing it right will lose its impact and power for many people. It akin to how a lot of folks now automatically assume that a striking landscape shot is always deceptively Photoshopped.

    I know I don’t have the dedication and patience for serious wildlife photography, but I’m not about to fake it. Kudos to you guys who do it for real! I guess it was a good thing you went that one game farm, so you can spread the word to everyone else.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Jackson. It seems to be a hot topic of late and I expect we’ll be seeing more media coverage of the captive “wildlife” industry. There are so many incredibly talented wildlife photographers in ILCP, spending enormous blocks of time to make images the right way. Tom Mangelson has been a vocal opponent of game farms for a very long time, while working all over the world to photograph imperiled species in their native habitat – doing it the right way. People you may, or may not have heard of like Michael Forsberg, Roy Toft, and Joe Riis are setting camera traps to make images while not even being physically present – and getting unbelievable images!

      I’ll plan a photoshop blog article for the future. It’s a very different issue, since the viewer is the most exploited. But the trust issue is key, and I’m glad you make that point. We all know photographers who go too far in a number of ways – there’s so much power in these software programs. It’s nothing new, started in black and white darkrooms, we’re artists… you know all of the angles. I’ll dig into that another day.

  3. I’d rather see the truth than the lie. Thank you for being committed to showing the real stories of these animals.

    I’m not optimistic about the public demanding less use or proper captioning of “wildlife” photos that aren’t unless we can create the same emotional experience you felt. When can we see photos of these animals in their cages? If more people saw these animals pacing, looking out, I think more people would feel the need to bring an end to that industry.

    If we do make that industry less lucrative, I’m concerned what will happen to the animals. There are already stories of abandoned animals, of rescue homes with too small budgets and too little property. Can we bring more attention to the people who do their best to care for these (often old and sick) animals? I don’t know much about this, only occasional news items over the years.

    Sounds like there is a lot of work here. Are there other organizations we can network with?

    I’d also like to see a photograph of the “wildlife photographer” throwing dog treats to the fox. Talk about images that tell a story.

    Thanks for writing this, it was distressing, but moving.

    1. Thanks, Jim for your thoughtful comments. I’m quite sure that there will be demand for the services of game farms; but I’ll plan to report back as I network with other photographers. I wish that I had the images of animals in cages and the photographer feeding the fox… I guess I wasn’t concerned about that side of the story at the time. About other organizations, I’d suggest that you talk to NANPA and consider joining a committee. NANPA’s conservation opinions are important, considering the size of the membership.

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