The Wildlife Watch Binocular
Fall 2004 / Winter 2005 Issue
Empathy for Other Species
is the Key to Ethical Wildlife Photography
deep admiration for nature has led many to another level
of appreciation--the craft of wildlife photography. Unfortunately,
not all who photograph wildlife do so out of caring and
with respect for our fellow beings. In fact, the behavior
of many photographers, both amateur and professional, can
only be described as disrespectful, disruptive and sometimes
dangerous to the animals they are photographing.
example, every spring in Yellowstone you are sure to see
a large group of photographers standing around--or even
sitting on lawn chairs--talking loudly right outside some
poor badger’s birthing den, waiting for the family to emerge.
Though these folks may think nothing of the clamor of a
rowdy bar or ball game, how would they like to live next
door to that bar or ball field, or wake up to the racket
of an expectant crowd of photojournalists right outside
their bedroom window?
response to this kind of ill-behavior, which invariably
results in the harassment or endangerment of wildlife,
informal guidelines have been established to spell out
just how close, in yards or feet, one should get to an
individual animal, depending on that species’ tolerance
rather than memorizing numbers and gauging distances, perhaps
it would be easier for photographers and wildlife observers
to apply the golden rule in each and every situation. However,
instead of the old, oversimplified rule, “Do unto others
as you would have them do unto you,” why not adopt a revised
golden rule that takes into account the differences between
ourselves and other species? Maybe something like, “Do
unto others as you think they would have you do unto them.” In
other words, try to envision what the animals’ needs and
self interests are and take into consideration how their
lives in the wild are different from our own. Empathy,
the intellectual or emotional identification with another
-- or the ability to relate to others -- is essential for
ethical standards when photographing wildlife.
This mother and young badger
were photographed across the road from their den
using a 600mm telephoto lens and a 2X multiplier.
spring I watched from a distance as the annual gathering
of noisy photographers was posted outside the entrance
of a badger den. They were so deep in conversation and
oblivious to their surroundings that none of them noticed
as the mother badger finally made a break for it in hopes
of procuring food for her young. The day before, I had
photographed the same badger den from across a road with
a 600mm telephoto lens fitted with a 2X extender to bring
the subject in closer without actually getting close. Because
I remained on the opposite side of the road and well away
from the den, quietly giving them the space they needed
to engage in their activities and enjoy the sunny day,
the badger and her young came and went freely, without
paying me any notice.
national Park like Yellowstone can
be the perfect place for photographing animals without
causing them undue stress. Since they know they are safe
from hunting within park boundaries, “game species” are
not so distrustful of human presence. Although many species
are easily viewable from park roadways, they are much less
concerned about vehicles than people approaching on foot.
Staying in your car makes wildlife feel more comfortable,
and your vehicle makes a great blind for photographing
animals calmly going about their business. Some of my best
photos have been taken out of the window of my rig.
examples of photographer misconduct include trimming away
vegetation--that may conceal a nest or den from people
and predators--to get a clearer photo, throwing food to
attract animals, and the all-too-common habit of yelling
or honking at an elk, a bison or a family of bears so they
will look toward the camera. By using empathy we can begin
to recognize changes in behavior and respect the signals
animals use to convey to us that we are irritating them
or getting too close for their comfort. Every year irresponsible
photographers are gored by bison, trampled by moose, or
charged by bears. When these animals are annoyed to the
point that they feel the need to defend themselves, chances
are they will suffer or die for it in the end. Thoughtless
conduct can also force animals to leave their familiar
surroundings, interrupt natural activities necessary for
survival, or even separate mothers from their young.
This bull elk was photographed from my vehicle in Jasper National
Park, Alberta, using a telephoto lens
Photographer magazine ran an article in January/February
2000 on “Tips for Photographing Eagles” with the sub-heading “A
long lens, the right location and a sensitive approach
can get you excellent images of these majestic birds”.
The author of the article, Bill Silliker, Jr. wrote, “If
you don’t have a long lens, don’t push it. Ethical wildlife
photography requires that we forego attempts to photograph
wildlife when we’re not equipped for it or if the attempt
might harass or somehow place the subject in jeopardy.
Be satisfied with images that show an eagle in its habitat.
Editors use those too.”
other day a neighbor stopped by and, upon seeing the small
herd of black-tailed deer who found refuge on my land,
asked if I was a hunter. When I said, “No, I’m a wildlife
photographer,” he shrugged and replied, “It’s all shooting.”
yes and no. The obvious, major difference is that the animals “shot” with
a camera do not end up dead. But because there are similarities
to hunting, many people approach wildlife photography with
a similar mind-set. It’s laughable to see photographers
in a national park camouflaged from head-to-toe, sometimes
including face paint, photographing a bull elk as he calmly
grazes alongside the road--fully aware of their presence.
And I couldn’t count how many times I’ve seen tourists
run right up to a bear, elk, bison, or moose with a tiny
disposable camera to get their close-up “trophy” photo.
They seem to think it’s only fair--that they are entitled
to get closer--since they don’t have a large telephoto
for their camera. But if they were to examine their motives
they would realize that their behavior is not fair to the
animal. Is their trophy more important than the well-being
of the subject of their photo?
the height of disregard, some photographers will use hounds
fitted with radio collars to pursue and corner bears, bobcats,
or cougars for close-up photos of these more elusive species.
If they are “lucky”, they might even catch the animal snarling
in response--just the way any number of hunting magazines
like to portray them on their covers or in juicy, two-page
fold-outs. But how would they feel if they
had to flee for their lives, chased down by a pack of dogs
until they were exhausted or treed, just so someone could
get a picture of them? Wildlife photography should not
be thought of as a sport or challenge against nature, or
against the animals who did not volunteer for the game. Would
it be considered ethical to make sport of photographing
unwilling human subjects?
practices of those who photograph wildlife for self-serving
purposes have given the whole field a bad name. Bill McKibben,
author of “The End of Nature” has proposed a moratorium
on new wildlife photos, to prevent further aggravation
of endangered animals. He argues there are plenty of photos
already out there for use in prints and publications. As
more incidents of unethical behavior by photographers occur,
the privilege of photographing wild animals will become
more and more restricted. Still, no amount of harassment
or disruption of wildlife in any way justifies the increasingly
popular use of game farms by so-called wildlife photographers.
often, the "wild" animal seen in a publication
or promotional is actually a captive animal sentenced to
life on a game farm. Game farms use high fences, costing
upwards of $8,000.00 per mile, to keep their preferred,
sometimes exotic species in. These fences also effectively
keep the native migratory wildlife out, thereby taking
up valuable habitat.
many game farms profit directly from the hunting of animals
in their enclosures, others appear relatively innocuous,
charging only for public viewing and private photographic
sessions with "wildlife models," including crowd-pleasing
kittens, cubs, or fawns bred specifically for that purpose.
But as these animals get older and less photogenic, they
are auctioned off as "surplus" to the highest
bidders--a common practice of zoos as well. It is likely
the same animals that appeared as cute babies on calendars,
greeting cards, or other publications will end up a few
years later at another game farm that does profit from
the canned hunting of them.
photographers and photo editors do not differentiate between
wild or captive animals when selling and publishing images.
Using photos shot at game farms supports those who profit
from exploiting animals by keeping them captive to serve
as models for photographers, entertainment for tourists,
or targets for trophy hunters. At the same time, these
photos set a new, unnatural standard for closeness and
intimacy with animals that the public expects to see in
every future image.
This sow grizzly bear was photographed
with a 600mm telephoto from a supervised Forest
Service observation platform along Fish Creek,
in Southeast Alaska.
while on the subject of ethics, how ethical is it to top
off a day of photographing waterfowl or ungulates with
a dinner of poultry or red meat? Don’t all living beings
deserve our compassion and respect? I had long heard that
animals feel less threatened by someone who does not eat
meat, but I wondered how long a human could survive without
consuming the flesh of others. After six years as a vegan,
I can attest to the fact that wild animals are not as fearful
of me now, and that saying “no” to animal protein is healthier
and easier than I ever would have imagined.
-- Jim Robertson
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