Conservation, Ethics

Point of View: Can Photographing Wildlife Models Make Conservation Sense?

by Joe McDonald | January 19, 2009

© Joe McDonaldLast year I attended the annual NANPA (North American Nature Photography Association) summit where one of the breakout sessions was concerned with “The Ethics of Subject Welfare: Animals, People, and the Land.” If you’ve ever been to a NANPA summit you know that there is an annual debate or discussion on the use of captive animals, and whether or not this is something nature or wildlife photographers, or NANPA attendees, should be doing, or even condoning.

Editorial note: This article is part of a series on ethical issues of truth in nature photography. Discussion is welcomed and may be found in the Environment, Conservation and Ethics Forum. For additional perspectives, please also read the following articles:

Although the subject of the NANPA breakout session was devoted to animals and people (the land was barely touched upon), the most interesting aspect of the session was the debate concerning captive animals. It grew rather heated at times, and because this topic deserves more than a cursory comment or opinion I kept out of the debate. However, I certainly had an opinion.

The point was made that the wild brethren of captive animals, or wildlife ambassadors as they’re sometimes inaccurately called, require vast tracts of territory. Mountain lions, or pumas, for example, may require hundreds of square miles. This is true, but it is due as much for the need to find a sufficient amount of food as it may be for any innate need to roam vast tracts of land. Innumerable range studies support this, as in game- or food-rich areas a territory or home range may shrink to only a fraction of that area. A tiger study, now out-dated, showed a tigress with a home range of twenty-five square miles, shared with three other tigresses and a male. Recently in Chile I observed 12 different pumas, comprising three different family groups, in a straight-line distance of 2.5 miles!

Certainly that set of facts is not meant as a rationalization, but the point is, when there is food, animals do not travel very far. Regardless of the size of an animal’s kennel or cage, for one brought up in captivity it is all they know, and if there is sufficient food and water, they may very well be quite content. We can’t know that for sure, but I caution everyone not to assign anthropomorphic desires to animals, ascribing a need to roam or hunt because we, as people, may need to do so.

Consider our pets for a moment. Many people kennel their dogs during the day while they are at work, where the kennel is barely longer than the length of the animal. These pets may be in a kennel for eight hours or more, but it is their routine and the kennel is their home. Perhaps because they see the kennel as their territory or home, dogs often sleep in their kennel by choice. Captive animals, these wildlife models, often return to their kennel when a shoot is done, as if they know the hour or so is finished and they’re ready to return back home. Although that might sound like a bunch of BS, it’s not – I’ve seen bears, bobcats, and lynx all do this, and I’ve watched with amazement when pumas practically jogged back to a truck to return to their kennel.

Most critics of captive animal shoots have not photographed at a game farm or ranch, so their opinion or prejudice may be based upon misconceptions, bias, or anthropomorphic sentiments. No doubt some facilities or instances would confirm some of these opinions, and that is, of course, tragic. I’d argue, however, that that would be the exception and not the rule, if for no other reason than the animals at these facilities are their bread-and-butter and having unhealthy or mistreated animals is not in the game farm’s best interest.

One could argue about cage size, fairness to these “wild” animals, and any number of other points forever, but two points should be addressed. One, none of these animals is “wild” in the truest sense of the word, as all were born and raised in captivity. None are taken from the wild, and as such these animals are “wildlife” only in the sense that the species to which they belong do exist in a wild state. These captive animals, born and raised in captivity and often raised with a great deal of affection and care, know no other life. With the training and conditioning and exercise required to keep the animals workable and to keep the truly “wild” nature of potentially dangerous animals suppressed, they often lead a far more pleasant and rewarding life than many dogs, man’s best friend. For example, a beagle kept for a November rabbit-hunting season may spend the next ten or eleven months in a tiny chicken coop size beagle-run or kennel. Too many “family pets,” even in neighborhoods of affluent or educated people, spend most of their adult lives isolated from their social unit – the owners – in a dog run or worse, chained to a post and confined to a sterile, barren circle of paw-trodden earth.

That’s not my point here, as I’m not trying to justify one “evil” by exposing another. If I were, then I’d expound upon the plight of calves imprisoned for the production of veal, or I’d second-guess myself on why I’ll eat ham and pork when I’ve read about the deplorable conditions at factory farms. I might question the validity of zoos, venerated or excused as educational institutions, where conditions are often less than ideal, and where the animals inside may have no other interaction or stimulus than the stares of on-lookers and the feeding and cleaning by their keepers. In comparison, a wildlife model that is worked with and exercised daily, often in activities that can only be called play, may have a far better life than either a zoo animal or even a once-loved family pet. I say “once-loved” because, quite sadly, too many dogs and cats lose their appeal once they grow out of being cute and cuddly puppies or kittens.

Instead, I’d like to point out the iconic value these captive animals provide, and the necessity of this symbolism. Too many of us are looking at our world with rose-tinted glasses where we see what we’d like to see, and hope for what we’d like to be. I don’t think there are many among us who would not agree that wildlife, as a whole, is in trouble for all sorts of reasons, including human pressures and habitat loss. All of us would love to preserve wildlife for its own sake, with no strings attached, for the basic belief that this is right. And of course, every wildlife photographer would prefer to photograph a truly wild animal than one that is controlled, captive or kept in a zoo.

Unfortunately, external pressures may intrude upon this noble goal.

Although I have no statistics to back this supposition, let’s just suppose that 95% of the photographers who visit a game farm know nothing about wildlife, care little for wildlife, and are interested simply in getting some neat shots of “wild” animals. Many of these photographers may pass off these shots to friends, lecture audiences, print customers, and others as animals they shot in the wild. Now let’s consider the other 5% who may use these images to illustrate magazine articles, books, promotional campaigns, or fund-raisers, or may simply use these images as “artist reference” material for producing paintings or illustrations for these same types of uses.

My argument is this: Even if only a mere 5%, or even 1%, of the photographs shot at a captive facility are used for conservation, it is worth it. As was pointed out at that breakout session, images hook readers, drawing their attention and often enticing them then to go further and to actually read the article, or at the least to buy or subscribe to the magazine or book.

We are a visual society, and we are also one driven by symbols and ideals. Images sell concepts and causes, and while we might wish to pretend that a photograph of a distant speck, a Canadian lynx shot in the wild, for example, will have the same impact as an “iconic” shot filmed at a game farm, the reality is that it will not, at least not for most publications.

Wild puma © Joe McDonald

I’ve spent several weeks over the last eight years in South America attempting to photograph pumas in the wild. I’ve been successful twice out of four trips, and have seen pumas in the wild six different times. I’m not on this quest because I expect a financial reward — I’ve spent way too much money to ever realize any return, but instead, for the pure joy and challenge of working with this incredible wild predator. Having photographed wild predators as well as captives, I think I have a very good understanding of the power of imagery, and knowing this points me to the conclusions I’ve made in this article.

But do we even need “iconic” images? I’d argue strongly that we do, and one species we’re all concerned with will illustrate my point. Almost every year or so a mountain lion, or puma, attacks or fatally injures a hiker, jogger, or bicyclist. Attacks often occur in non-wilderness settings – parkland or open range or hiking trails that may be located near schools or developed suburban areas.

On occasion, stock images have been used to illustrate the villain of the story, images of pumas snarling or spitting at the camera. These shots can indeed be had in the wild if dogs run a puma until it is finally treed. It’s not too difficult to get a photograph of an angry, snarling cat that’s been treed, and if you take the time and have the fortitude to peruse a year’s worth of national hunting magazines you’ll see exactly what I mean. A public’s perception that a puma is dangerous is certainly reinforced by images of aggressive-looking cats, and certainly adds fuel to the fire to reinstate a hunting season or remove a protected status from the puma in areas where, indeed, it is protected.

Pro-puma advocates can also draw on stock images, ones that show a mother puma carrying her helpless cub in gentle jaws, or relaxing and calmly licking a paw, or sitting in beautiful light, overlooking a valley or pristine mountain habitat. Images of kittens playing or wrestling or running or jumping or nursing, adults in any number of poses that show an animal as part of its world, and not hissing down at a cameraman or, far worse, lying blood-splattered on the bed of a pickup truck, are indeed available to counter the image of the puma as a blood-thirsty threat to suburban life.

Icons are symbols, and as such can illustrate important concepts. One that immediately comes to mind is one I’ve seen of a puma sitting on a mountain ridge overlooking a valley laced with roads and dotted by homesteads and ranches. The image illustrated the loss of habitat and the encroachment of civilization on the wilderness, symbolized so effectively by North America’s magnificent and often maligned big cat.

One could argue that with enough time and dedication any wild animal could be filmed in the wild, and that’s true. Unfortunately, though, that would result in a tiny pool of images to draw from, as the chances of getting those shots are slim. It’s been argued that the captive animal shooters are just lazy and are unwilling to work hard for their shots, a conclusion I’d vehemently dispute. But the counter-argument is, do we, as wildlife lovers and conservationists, really want hordes of photographers out there even trying?

I know one kindly gentleman that has an obsession with all the big cats, and who has the money to attempt to photograph them. He’s made costly trips to photograph tigers and lions and cheetahs and leopards, even jaguars, which involved several trips to Brazil before he finally was successful with a spotlight illuminated cat. He loves big cats, but he’s missing the puma, but he told me he had a lead, an outfitter in the northwest that can guarantee success by running dogs and treeing a cat.

My acquaintance is a bit uncomfortable with that, but he wants his puma. He’s not a professional, just a cat lover and photographer, and he squirmed a bit when I explained to him that pumas may breed at any time of year, and a female puma run by dogs in winter might be separated from its cubs. If separated long enough, the cubs could be lost or killed by other predators, including male pumas, as lost cubs are not silent but instead give quiet little yelps to draw their mother’s attention. Life is always tough for a predator, and one has to wonder how many valuable calories are expended as a terrified cat plunges through winter snow in its panicked escape from pursuing hounds? How much stress does it suffer? I could see the shades of doubt cross my friend’s face as I told him this, but I don’t think he was convinced. He wants a puma shot, and this might be his only chance.

Even if we all could agree that photographing wild predators is indeed the only way to go, and that we could do so in a much more benign way than the example just cited, the chances of success are slim, and the inventory of images that might result would be very small. That’s fine if a fickle and attention-deficit public would not grow tired of the same photograph appearing over and over again to illustrate a point, but that’s not the reality.

Of course, wild predators are occasionally filmed. Just a few springs ago a puma entertained scores of tourists on a cliff face opposite an overlook in Yellowstone as it basked in the sun for nearly the entire day. I saw some of the shots, made with 600mms and converters, and I envied the opportunity. Several years ago a puma and two cubs spent much of the winter near the national elk refuge in Jackson Hole, and as word spread dozens of photographers and onlookers appeared to catch a glimpse or shoot long lens vignettes of the pumas’ lives. I’d have been there had I known about it and had the time, but I didn’t, so I lay out this supposition with the conviction that I’d have been as guilty as anyone else who was there. But guilty of what?

After the fact, I wondered if the photographers may have placed this adult and her cubs in jeopardy, as a daily, if distant, contact with an admiring human audience might have lessened the cats’ innate fear of humans, actually habituating them for closer contacts. In a perfect world that might be fine, but pumas are hunted in Wyoming, and when the cats eventually left the refuge and returned to unprotected lands, were they in greater danger? Did the near-daily contact with photographers blunt their wild instincts, increasing their chances that a cat be killed? A truly wild cat might flatten or slink off at the first sign of man, and thus avoid harm, but what will one do that has had a season of benign contacts?

Many magazines and some books recognize this captive animal dilemma and are addressing the issue by labeling photographs as controlled or captive. The illustration is still making its point, even if wide-eyed photographers or readers suffer disappointment when they discover that the great shots they’re admiring were not photographed in the wild. I think we have to get past a hero mentality that might exist when photographing wild animals, implying I’m a better photographer or I work harder or I’m more ethical because I only shoot wild animals and instead look at the very real value that any good photograph has. After all, what are we trying to do here?

I hope most of us are trying to promote conservation. With an increasing human population, with increasing demands on resources and land, with continual encroachment into wild habitat, whether that’s to build luxury homes and condos or bike and hiking trails, one could argue that our natural world is under siege. It’s sometimes said there’s a battle for conservation, and if one uses such terms, then we should also recognize that a battle implies a war, and the fight for conservation may require looking at the solutions pragmatically, not idealistically.

If we hope to conserve habitat and wildlife, if we want to educate and motivate the public about wildlife and conservation issues, then I think we should use every tool at our disposal to do so. In that very important role, as an educational tool and as a symbol that can be tapped into in any number of constructive ways, well cared for captive animals play a vital part. It may not be for you, but no one can deny the value powerful images play, and have played, in conservation.

The opinions expressed herein are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or the opinions of the Editors or of LLC.

About the Author

Joe McDonald has been photographing wildlife and nature for over forty years, and has been a full-time professional since 1983. He has been published in every major North American nature publication and is represented by several stock agencies. With his wife Mary Ann, Joe teaches photography and digital workshops from his home in central Pennsylvania. Additionally, he and his wife spend at least 50% of an average year traveling, leading photo tours and safaris for photographers. Joe is a master of electronic flash, and regularly incorporates flash into his high-speed action work. That, and capturing defining moments, such as action or a telling portrait, is his photography specialty. His favorite location for photography is the East African countries of Kenya, Tanzania, and Rwanda, and Joe has had seven BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year winners from this region. In 2009 this duo completed their 50th mountain gorilla trek in Rwanda. Visit his website at:

One thought on “Point of View: Can Photographing Wildlife Models Make Conservation Sense?

  1. Nice article and I understand your viewpoints. Here is my complaint. I’m not a professional or even a very good amateur but I enjoy nature photography and living in Arizona have plenty of opportunity. Our home adjoins a rather large desert mountain preserve and as a result we see an abundance of bird and mammal wildlife. I took some photos of a large Coyote walking down our street that were decent – interesting poses and sharp exposures. I entered one in the Nature category of my local photo club. It was rejected as an entry because there was a human element in the photo (through the background bokeh one can recognize the sidewalk/curb. Fair enough, yet the winner in the category that drew raves was a shot of a captive Mountain Lion leaping through snow that the photographer admitted was taken on a wild animal farm in Montana with the handlers pulling a piece of leather on a rope to entice the animal to perform. All planned of course with the photographer having time to set up with a tripod, take test shots and in a place where the handler told them would provide a good composition. So, seriously, which photo was truly a “nature” shot?

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