Wildlife Photographers vs. Wildlife

Foxes_credit Michael Furtman

"I do my hunting with a camera. That way I can appreciate and save the beauty of wild animals without doing any damage."

Decades ago, such a statement allowed wildlife photographers to claim the moral high ground, even as they voiced a not-so-subtle put down of hunters and anglers who presumably lacked their pure love of nature.

Now, after many years of experience, we know that wildlife photography is not necessarily as innocuous as we once thought. Photographers can and do cause unintentional injury and death to wild creatures as well as damage to habitats. The sheer numbers of people who are out there taking photos can be overwhelming. Where ten photographers might not cause unhealthy changes in the daily habits of a wild animal, hundreds (or even thousands) of camera-toting interlopers certainly can.

New and improved roads have made it easier for the general public to reach wildlife. Modern photographic equipment is smaller, lighter, less expensive, and easier to use than in the past. This combination of factors, plus a desire on the part of some people to experience "hunting" without bloodshed, has put millions more people with cameras in the outdoors.

Far too many photographers are outfitted with inadequate equipment and understanding of animals. That’s not necessarily a problem — until they are consumed with a desire for the perfect shot. Without a high-quality telephoto lens (which is still very expensive), the photographer will want to get as close as possible to the subject.

And here is where the desire of the photographer conflicts directly with the absolute needs of the wild animal. Wild animals’ very survival depends on their ability to maintain space between themselves and threats — and humans are the ultimate threat. Most ethical issues with wildlife photographers come down to not allowing animals the space they require.

Only a small percentage of photographers intrude on wild animals intentionally. Many don’t realize that wild creatures become highly stressed when humans are near and may react by fleeing, abandoning their young, or attacking — and any of those actions is detrimental to the animal. Oftentimes, the photographer’s impact is indirect or delayed but no less tragic.

As a youngster, I once found and photographed a mallard nest in a grassy field. I bent some grasses out of the way to give me an unrestricted view. I lay down in the grass to provide a powerful, level perspective. I got some great shots. When I returned two days later, all the eggs had been broken and eaten. A skunk, opossum, or raccoon had found the nest — probably because I’d broken down the protective grass screen — and eaten its fill. I was glad, at least, that no adult feathers were scattered about.

While all mating and nesting birds are attractive to wildlife photographers, it is the rare and the unusual that garner the most attention. Those birds — which are also the most likely to be on threatened or endangered species lists — are exactly the ones least able to deal with the attention of crowds. Photographers have repeatedly ignored posted warnings not to closely approach nests of the endangered snail kite, a bird of prey totally dependent on apple snails found in the steadily declining Florida Everglades. Even some photographic guides and outfitters, whose livelihoods are closely intertwined with the long-term welfare of snail kites and other sensitive species, have made a habit of approaching far closer than regulations allow and good sense requires.

Aquatic wildlife species are certainly not immune to encroachment by photographers. Orcas as well as gray and humpback whales are dogged by whale watching boats along the entirety of their West Coast ranges, from California to Alaska. Dolphins and sea turtles experience the same kind of intrusive behavior by boats and divers along the Atlantic Coast. Manatees have trouble escaping sightseers and photographers except in designated Florida sanctuaries. Like land-borne species, space is aquatic species’ only protection from humans, and if they constantly have to flee to create space, they use up food reserves, disrupt their life cycle, and may ultimately change their habit patterns.

Even fish suffer from the attentions of photographers. Game fish that have been caught and released experience a high rate of fatalities — at least partly because so many of them have been held out of the water for photographs. The act of netting and handling fish without regard for their protective slime may leave them vulnerable to infection.

As important as it is for wildlife photographers to maintain adequate distance from their subjects, the time they spend in proximity to wild animals is almost as critical. While even nesting parents may accept some intrusion near their eggs and young, human presence nearby is, at the least, a source of irritation. And it is cumulative. The longer a photographer stays close enough to cause stress in a wild animal, the more likely the creature is to respond in an unpredictable fashion.

The digital revolution in cameras has removed the historic constraints imposed by film cameras. Rolls of film were expensive and people were oath to use all their film in one spot. Now, with memory chips that can store thousands of high-quality photos, there is no longer a built-in break from the photographic action. Photographers can stay close to animals for hours and take thousands of photos. Pressure on the animals is unrelenting. And it’s not always just the animal that pays.

In 2012, a photographer was killed and eaten by a grizzly bear in Denali National Park in Alaska — the first fatal bear attack at the park. Analysis of the man’s photographs indicated that he’d been taking pictures of the bear for eight minutes and had been within 50 yards of the bear for part of that time. Eight minutes is an eternity spent close to a grizzly. Had the man backed away at any time during that period, he would probably still be shooting photos today. The bear might still be alive as well.

Several organizations publish guide-lines for wildlife photographers. All are good, and they don’t need to be recreated here. But allow me to provide some common-sense advice:

  • Put yourself in the animal’s place. A wild creature with human photographers around feels the same as you would if you were living near kidnappers, thieves, and murderers. If youngsters are involved, its feelings of unease are compounded, just as yours would be.
  • Be sensitive. Just because you mean no harm doesn’t mean you will not cause harm. Setting up a blind near a desert waterhole during the summer can cause the deaths of various birds as well as mule deer and pronghorns. Photographing animals in deep snow can make them use their last reserves of energy and result in their deaths.
  • Back away from the animal at its first signs of anxiety.
  • Don’t share all your finds on social media. Sharing is not a good thing if it creates avoidable pressure on wildlife, especially wildlife with young
  • Don’t go along with the crowd. Speak up if you see someone doing something harmful, and report them to the authorities if they persist.
  • Don’t be foolish. Pretty simple, or it should be. Crowding dangerous animals such as elk, deer, alligators, snakes, and bears is foolish. Taking selfies with bison is foolish.

Taking photos of wild animals is among our most rewarding outdoor pursuits. You are taking the animal’s image. It is a special gift. Try to give back your own gifts of space and time.

Pat Wray, author of Corvallis Reflections and A Chukar Hunter’s Companion, is a long-time freelance writer residing in Corvallis, Oregon, with his wife and two hunting dogs. He is a retired U.S. Marine helicopter pilot and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Information Officer.