Long ago in the dim and distant past I brought some framed work and notecards to a "Wildlife Art Show". Admittedly, my work was not very good, or presented very well. I have worked on that over the years to where I am comfortable with presenting my work again and I do pretty well at shows, but that is not the point. At this particular show there was a booth where each artist in the show could set up one of their pieces to be judged for best this or best that and best in show. At the time I was dabbling in photoshop and had entered a piece that was a photograph manipulated to look like a watercolor painting, and although the judges liked it, they had no idea what category to judge it in, so it received no ribbon.
I could live with that, I really didn't expect to get anything anyway, but again, I am drifting away from the point. The piece that won "Best in Show" was an excellent photograph of a mountain lion. It had great detail, great light, the entire cat's body was visible and in a great position, it had everything! I liked this photograph very much, but unfortunately for me I had the audacity of asking the photographer if it had not been shot on a game farm, which she admitted, it indeed had. She then became very defensive about it, which was quite unnecessary as I was not judging the photograph or her at the time, I was just curious as to the story behind getting the shot.
As I walked away from the now quite agitated woman I began to think about what my feelings were about game farms, and I didn't have to think very long before I realized that the idea of raising wild animals in captivity so that some game hunter could shoot it for a trophy absolutely repulsed me, but I digress. I began to then think about how this applied to photography and would I ever pay money to someone who raised wildlife in captivity so that I could get a shot of something that I would otherwise have to spend many hours, maybe days and months or a lifetime to be lucky enough to even catch a glimpse of, let alone photograph. Well, a game farm would certainly solve that problem… but I was certain I would never give money to someone who raised wild animals in captivity to exploit them for profit. Certainly now would be a good time to call me a hypocrite for taking my grand daughter to the zoo and to a petting farm.
And as I thought these thoughts I began to understand just why the woman had become so defensive. She understood in her heart that some people with a lot of gall, like myself, might question the fact that she had entered a photograph into a "Wildlife" contest which was not actually photographed in the wild. Not only had she entered it in a contest passing it off as something it wasn't, but she had walked away with a nice big, blue ribbon. Now, I never approached the judges which certainly would have been petty, and I really have no idea if they were aware the photo was from a game farm or not. In the great scheme of things it matters little, but I knew right then and there that I would never shoot wildlife on a game farm, but if I did, I would be sure it was clear to everyone viewing the shot that it was of an animal in captivity, and not a "wildlife" shot.
Now, perhaps things were better in those days, before digital photography really took off and everybody became a photographer, and we didn't have such wonderful social media networks such as Facebook, but unfortunately I find that I am now many years in the future from this event, and I still have nagging questions about what is ethical and what is not when photographing wildlife. Many experiences over the last few months of this winter have made me ponder "ethical wildlife photography" even further.
As you are probably aware, we have had a great year here on the seacoast of New Hampshire and Massachusetts to view and photograph a large influx of Snowy Owls. They arrive in December and usually leave in March. In a normal year they are driven here by a lack of food which consists mainly of rodents, particularly lemmings, which multiply in their native arctic tundra. If the rodents have a good year and multiply their numbers it lessens the chance that we will see the snowy's come south, so, the migration is mainly food driven. This is called an irruption and is defined as this: " to undergo a sudden upsurge in numbers especially when natural ecological balances and checks are disturbed."
Generally this is the case, but this year has seemed to be different in that there has been a large influx of young owls, which leads one to believe there was a particularly good year for rodents in the arctic which also translated to there being a particularly good year for snowy owl chicks, more of whom survived because there was plenty to feed them, and thence they came to spend their first or second winters here with us in New Hampshire. This is all well and good for photographers and birders alike who have flocked to the seacoast to get a glimpse, or possibly a photograph of these beautiful birds which most will never see in their native habitat of the arctic tundra. Which brings me back around to the point of what I am trying to convey.
Through the wonderful communication device which I spoke of before, known as Facebook, I became aware that the owls had arrived in early December, right on schedule. On my first foray to the shoreline where they tend to hang out I knew I had hit pay dirt when I saw a group of photographers with embarrassingly huge lenses pointed at a dune, where indeed, sat a snowy owl. I stepped out of the car, retrieved my embarrassingly tiny 300mm lens and affixed it to my embarrassingly tiny and inadequate camera body, and headed out to join them. The group was gathered with their tripods and cameras along the path and behaving pretty nicely, until the owl flew over to the next dune. Then, as one the entire group scooped up their equipment as though a Hollywood starlet had just passed by and literally chased it over to the next dune. As they stepped over the dune fence and completely ignored the sign that explained the fragility of the dunes and which kindly asked them to stay off, they set up shop again in close range to their quarry, the owl.
I kept my distance and took some wide angle shots. I knew I could always crop in if there was something worthwhile and I did not need to approach any further. As the squeaky dog toys came out to attract the owl's attention and make sure he kept his eyes nice and wide open for the paparazzi, I backed off, knowing full well that I would have a better chance when the initial furor settled down and that wonderful communication device known as Facebook was flooded with fantastic close-up shots of the snowys that everyone was flocking to see and photograph. I waited a week or two before venturing back out, figuring things would calm down, but it wasn't to be. That wonderful communication device known as Facebook had spread the word like wildfire, and people were now arriving at the beaches in droves, using their smartphones to text and tweet the latest sighting locations to each other.
Ok, I get it. This is a life bird for many people. Many others who may not even be birders would like a chance to see something that is rare for this area of the world, and that they may not get the chance to see again. I was fine with this, enjoy them while they're here, but respect them as wild animals, and give them some space, Ok? Over the days and weeks I went further up the seacoast in search of them. I talked to one fellow also enjoying their visit as we were the only ones observing this particular owl who had gifted us with some excellent contrast as he landed in the wet, black rocks at shore-line. He told me he had been there the day before and had to stop some kids from throwing rocks at it. When he had questioned them as to why they would do that they told him they "wanted to see it fly."Ok, just some kids who didn't know any better, but it made me worry for the owls...
I returned further south and found that no matter where I tried to observe them, no matter what time of day or what day of the week, I found at least a few other photographers as well. I could live with this as long as they treated the owls with respect. I heard some talk of baiting the owls with mice from the pet store and I tried to explain that that was not a good idea, considered unethical and a sure way to change the habits of a wild animal. They needed to be patient if they wanted that type of shot, and they might get it. Admittedly, I do not have that much patience myself, but there certainly are those that do. I can live without getting that kind of shot, so I would never consider baiting an owl, but I am sure that many of the great owl photos that are to be found in the world used just that technique, the technique of baiting.
More time passed, and I managed a few decent shots here and there. I even brought a few friends to where I knew we would see, and hopefully be able to photograph them. On the first of these forays we managed to get a few distant shots of one while we stood with a small army of other photographers at a respectable distance. I was happy that I was at least able to find one and after a few more shots we ventured further along and were rewarded with one all to ourselves who had landed in a tree beside the road. We took a few more shots and moved on again. As we were leaving, we once again passed the hordes with their attention and cameras focused on a distant one when we noticed another we could pretty much have to ourselves perched on a light pole a short distance away.
We got as close as we felt comfortable with, trying to get some close ups. I told my friend I wanted to get a little closer, but was afraid it would be too much for the owl who would probably fly off. I said, "Be ready," and took one step towards the owl safely perched on the light pole. Sure enough, off he flew, my friend snapped the photo and left happy with a great shot. I was happy for him, and that I was able to help him get it. Next, two more friends made the trip to meet up with me and we headed out to find them. Sure enough, right where I expected we found one, though rather distant for good photography, and even with binoculars he was difficult to even pick out between the ice chunks where he was perched in the salt marsh. We drove around the area a bit in search of others, and again found one on a distant dune, only slightly better viewing than the first. I suggested we head up the coast a bit and they agreed.
We stopped and took a quick look where I had spotted the first one of the year in December, but found nothing. Despite the bright sun of the day, the bitter cold and biting wind were beginning to dampen our spirits and I was beginning to despair that I would have to send my friends home with little more than a distant glimpse of one, or was it a chunk of ice? I talked them into going up to a certain point and if we struck out there we would return to where we had started in hopes the owl had moved in closer. They were good with the idea, so off we went. When we turned into the turn around spot our hopes rose again as there were people gathering with tripods and cameras. I began to wonder at the fact that it was Monday morning, doesn't anybody work anymore?
As we approached the small throng it was curious to see that their attention was fixed on the roof of the public toilet. As we rounded the building, sure enough, there on the roof was a snowy, seemingly unconcerned about the gathering throng. As each of us got in as close as we thought was acceptable to get our shots, the snowy held her ground and continued to seem unfazed by our presence. Indeed, it was obviously her nap time and she was going to enjoy it despite the humans who ambled in as close as they could get to take her picture. While talking to some people in the crowd one woman spoke up that she had been there every day for a month or so. She pointed out some scattered ice chunks on the roof and told me that people had been throwing them there to get the snowy to open its eyes.
See? This is what I mean! where does the ethical treatment of these magnificent creatures come into play? Is it not enough to see this one so close up and be happy with it? No, people have to throw things at it or squeak toys at it so it will open its eyes for their shot. Sorry, I find it simply and plainly unethical. We got some great close up shots, and to be frank, I don't give a damn if the birds eyes were open or not. We left, and my friends were thrilled, and I was filled with a sense of thankfulness that we had had such a great sighting, and that they would not be going home with the nagging question of, "Did we really see one, or was it just a chunk of ice?"
Now, fast forward to the present and back to that wonderful communication device known as Facebook. There I sat on a gloomy, rainy day perusing a favorite wildlife photography site when I came across a great picture of a Northern Hawk Owl. It was for all purposes a well executed photograph, framed well, decent light, good detail. Only one problem as far as I could see, and that was that in its beak it held a white rat. It was glaringly obvious that this owl had been baited, and that small fact had produced quite an uproar, not only because it broke the rules of posting photos to this particular site which asked that no photos of baited animals be posted, but also because many felt, myself included, that altering this birds behavior by baiting it simply to get a photograph was unethical.
Why is this unethical you may ask? Well, I am sure there are many different points of view on why it would be unethical, but to me it is because it does a disservice to the real wildlife photographers who spend the time in the field to capture these types of behavior. And this doesn't even take into account that I found the photo ridiculous in that unless an owl had happened upon a goldmine of escaped white rats from some research center or pet store, you would never see this in the wild, making this photograph in my humble opinion, a farce. To make matters worse in my mind, the photo was posted by, get this, the President of the Ornithological Society of, let's just say, a southern state, who had travelled to Duluth, MN with an entourage of other birders to bait and photograph owls, not unlike those hunters on the game farms.
To say the least, I was a bit disturbed, as were others, that he felt this was an acceptable way to get his photograph, and unfortunately, I am sure he is not alone. Well, despite the photo breaking the "no baited animals" rule of the site, the moderator allowed the discussion about it to go on until, as it always does, some people's emotions took over and the intellectual discussion on the subject turned to infantile attacks on each others set of beliefs when the moderator finally stepped in and deleted the whole thread, which is almost always what happens when a controversial subject is breached. That was fine by me, it was easy enough to go to the man's own Facebook page where I voiced my concern about his method of obtaining photographs of owls by the bait system. His fancy pants, college educated reply to me was, "Yeah, I don't like hypocrites like you, neither." I guess I somehow expected a more intellectual reply from the president of an ornithological society who had his college credentials clearly stated on his Facebook page for all the world to see. Far be it for me, a lowly Disabled Veteran whose only degree comes from The School of Hard Knocks to question the methods of one so much greater than myself.
My reply was, "Gee, sorry you feel you have to defend yourself by resorting to name-calling. How exactly am I a hypocrite?"I got one reply before he left to go have a conniption. "I suppose you have never, or would never take a photo of a bird at a feeder?"Well, damn it, yes I have. He had me there, alright. I don't know, as hard as I try, I cannot equate buying a white rat at a pet store, staking it out in a field completely out of its element in the hopes that an owl will drop by to eat it while I snap away with my camera, with snapping pictures of the birds that drop by my feeders. I'm just stupid, I guess. So now, here I go thinking again. Am I baiting birds by feeding them? Is this unethical? Is my feeding the birds and then snapping their pictures as unethical as if I was to stake a pet store rat out on my deck in the hopes some raptor would swoop down and snatch it while I snapped away? Am I baiting the hummingbirds and butterflies that visit my garden as well?
How about when I go to the bone pile where I know the town dumps the road kill to photograph the birds? Have they been baited? Well, maybe not so much, because they would find the road kill whether it was dumped in one spot or left where it was. So, am I actually photographing wildlife doing what it does, or has their behavior been changed by human intervention? I went back and deleted my "conversation" with the president, not because he had instilled any doubt about my own methods and ethics in my mind, but because I knew my argument wasn't going to change his mind, and it wasn't worth my time. I guess my own definition of a hypocrite would be someone who was the head of an organization which I would suppose was about the protection of that which the organization was based upon who deemed that this sort of baiting was an Ok way to get some photographs to show off on that wonderful communication device known as Facebook. I guess I need to take a closer look at my own methods and ethics when I am in the field trying to get my own pictures to show off...