Phony wildlife photography warps nature and is rarely revealed
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?
“I understand that people need to make a living, and it’s easier to rent an animal for an afternoon,” says National Geographic’s photo editor for natural history, Kathy Moran. “They claim these animals are ‘wildlife ambassadors.’ No. An injured animal used for education—that’s a wildlife ambassador. An animal kept solely for profit is an exploited animal. The wild isn’t pretty. I’d rather see it real than all gussied up. When I see a poster of a big, beautiful air-blown lion galloping toward me with a mane that looks better than my hair, I feel cheated.”
Of course, a photo of a tame animal isn’t a lie if the animal is clearly identified as captive. Deist advocates “full disclosure.” But what is full disclosure? Is it a caption that says “controlled conditions” or a photo credit that says “captive”? Credits often go unread.
Then there’s the humane issue. For many game-farm animals, life is hard and brief. According to documents I obtained from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Animals of Montana—a now-closed game farm near Bozeman that was at least as popular as Triple D—euthanized eight wolves in 2007 because they were “dangerous.” In other words, their behavior was too wolflike. The spring 2009 issue of Currents, the newsletter of the North American Nature Photography Association, quotes a photographer who requested anonymity as saying this about her first and last visit to Animals of Montana: “The owner took out a mountain lion, but the lion didn’t want to come. There was kicking and dragging and yelling.”
All the big magazines devoted in whole or in part to wildlife are now wrestling with how best to do the right thing. Audubon will not knowingly publish game-farm shots, and will clearly indicate in captions when animals are photographed in captivity (or in credits in rare situations where captions aren’t possible). Sierra tries to avoid captive shots, but when it does run them it labels them in the credits. Natural History uses few captive photos and includes the information in the story or captions. Smithsonian runs few and labels them in the credit line. It won’t publish game-farm shots. Two years ago, after taking heavy flak for nature fakery, Defenders of Wildlife decided to severely limit the number of captive images it runs in its magazine and calendars. National Geographic won’t knowingly publish game-farm photos, and when it runs a captive shot it’s identified as such and is almost always an animal used for article-related research.
National Wildlife, a booming market for game-farm photos until about 10 years ago, now uses none, though it does publish the odd shot of a zoo or rehab animal, reporting origin in the caption or credit. But nature magazines are dwarfed by other markets, few of which know or care about the source of animal photos.
Most magazines and virtually all publishers of posters and calendars, even those commissioned by environmental organizations, have no standard for honesty in wildlife photography. The vast hunting press is shameless. Battery acid is splashed on captive fish to make them leap frantically. I talked to one wildlife photographer who has quit submitting deer photos to hook-and-bullet publications because he can’t compete with all the photographers who rent or own penned deer bred for freakishly large antlers. One ancient beast, which appeared on the covers of countless hunting rags, was kept on life support for years with medications and surgeries.
There is some gray in the debate about captive-wildlife images.
“People aren’t getting off their couches and seeing wildlife in the flesh anymore,” says genuine wildlife photographer Joel Sartore. “So game farms can provide an appreciation of how majestic these animals are.”
And game-farm advocates have a good point when they argue that too many photographers in the wild can stress wildlife and habituate animals to humans. Still, I can’t think that if facilities like Triple D were to vanish, their clientele would rush into the wild to squat for months in snow, sleet, and rain.
Excerpted from Audubon (March-April 2010), where editor-at-large Ted Williams is “an independent advocate for the environment” in his Incite column, which combines in-the-field reporting and sage commentary. © 2010 the National Audubon Society. www.audubonmagazine.org