If that photo of a snow leopard looks just too perfect to be natural, it probably isn’t, Ted Williams writes in Audubon magazine. Many wildlife photographs, he reports, are now taken at game farms where captive animals are basically hired out as models; that’s even what the industry calls them.
Williams visits one such operation, the Triple D in Montana, which has wolves, cougars, and snow leopards among its talent. While he praises Triple D’s owners for treating its animals well, the muckraking author of Audubon’s “Incite” column nonetheless questions the underlying premise of their enterprise:
Images of Triple D’s snow leopards are proliferating like Internet pop-ups. In 2008 one even received first place in the “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?
Not all game farms are as ethical as Triple D. Williams notes that life is “hard and brief” for many captive animals, and some of the operations illegally traffic in endangered wildlife. Moreover, plenty of farm operators are happy to conceal the conceit that photographs of their animals are being passed off as amazing shots from the wild.
For publications that feature wildlife photography, the phenomenon means wrestling with ethical issues—or not. Williams cites hunting and fishing magazines, a.k.a. “the vast hook-and-bullet press,” as eager and shameless traffickers in nature fakery:
Battery acid is splashed on captive fish to make them leap frantically. I talked to one genuine 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 such mutation, appearing on the covers of countless hunting rags, had four owners, the last of which bought him for $150,000. For years the ancient beast was kept on life support with medications and surgeries.
Many other publications that cover wildlife and wish to keep their natural cred—among them Audubon, Sierra, Natural History, Smithsonian, Defenders of Wildlife, National Wildlife, and a more careful National Geographic—either don’t use captive shots or clearly identify them when they do. To Williams’ credit, he acknowledges that even Audubon has a checkered past, quoting former editor Les Line: “The earliest issues of Audubon [circa 1903] tried to pass of photographs of stuffed birds as live ones. That’s minor compared to what’s been happening since.”
The print edition of the March-April Audubon shows a photo of a captive Arctic fox that almost fooled Audubon’s now-wary photo editors, who considered publishing it last year. Among the giveaways in this “anatomy of a fake”: The creature is much heavier than a wild fox and has that “just-shampooed look.”