Picture Perfect

Phony wildlife photography warps nature and is rarely revealed

  • Picture Perfect Image

    Andrew Geiger / www.andrewgeiger.com

  • Picture Perfect Image

One day  last December, before noon in the Glacier National Park ecosystem of northwestern Montana, I encountered two wolves and two cougars. What were the chances of that?

Well, they were 100 percent, because I’d rented the animals for a photo shoot with photographer Andrew Geiger. The “models,” as the industry calls them, were beautiful and healthy. At 8:30 a.m., after a long sleep and a hot breakfast in the guesthouse of the Triple D game farm, I was ready for my three hours in the field. Behind the Triple D office, Geiger and I met our first model—Jewel, a 3-year-old cougar who paced and mewed behind the bars in the back of the truck. By the time trainer Logan Saich had driven us to the scenic set leased by Triple D, the day had warmed from minus 24 degrees to minus 16.

Saich led Jewel to high ground, where she posed like Kate Moss against magnificent snow-clad peaks. Surprised by the snow and ice, she raised and shook each paw as she walked. Jewel chased her melon-size plastic ball halfheartedly and swatted none too ferociously at a deer-hair toy. Still, this was the high point in her dreary day. On our way down Saich had to carry her, and she grabbed the last fence post with both front paws. “Good girl, good girl,” Saich murmured when she let go.

Back at the game farm, Attilli, the 4-year-old cougar, performed better. He was obsessed with his ball, bounding over logs in pursuit and looking very fierce. Then came Big John, the black wolf, who placed his forepaws on a rock, as he’d been trained to do, and snapped up the beef-heart treat Saich threw to him. “Good boy!” exclaimed Saich.

“You couldn’t have gotten those shots in the wild,” Triple D co-owner Jay Deist told me, and he was right. In 1972 he, his brother, and his father opened Triple D, but not for photographers. They were “going to save the world” by capturing and breeding vanishing wildlife. It didn’t work out. But soon photographers began paying for sessions with the animals. Deist describes the early clientele as “very secretive, because they didn’t want anyone to know the source.” Concurrently, these amazing “wildlife photos” started showing up in magazines, calendars, and posters—close-up action shots with every whisker in perfect focus. Similar game farms sprang up around the country, though no one knows how many there are.

Images of Triple D’s snow leopards are proliferating like Internet pop-ups. In 2008 one even received first place in the viewers’ choice “nature” category of National Geographic’s international photography contest. Animals like snow leopards are in desperate trouble, but why should people believe this when they see sleek, healthy snow leopards every time they walk into a bookstore or open a “wildlife” calendar?

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