Conservation, Ethics
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Point of View: Game Farm Photography

by Thomas Mangelsen | January 19, 2009

Game Farm photography is not an issue that is broadly understood. Imagine genetically wild animals born in captivity, incarcerated for life, only to be paroled and paraded for profit, and you have the Game Farm picture.

Although I have spoken out against Game Farm photography for many years, for reasons I discuss below, I feel it is more important than ever to educate people about the practice. I feel that there are numerous issues that have been swept under the rug.

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 NatureScapes.Net Environment, Conservation and Ethics Forum. For additional perspectives, please also read the following articles published at NSN:

Not only am I concerned about the welfare and exploitation of the animals, but also about the continuing loss of credibility and integrity to the wildlife photography profession once people learn that many of the photographs they have admired are of animals that spend their lives in cages.

I have heard all the rationales for photographing at Game Farms. I find most of the justifications hard to accept and feel most are self-serving and generally don’t really consider the welfare or the best interest of the animal or for that matter what’s best for the profession of wildlife photography.

Background and Issues

The following thoughts are about Game Farm photography—not so much about captive vs. wild photography.

Game Farms, although they vary somewhat, are principally in the business of making money by keeping genetically wild animals captive for the specific purpose of photography, filmmaking, art/painting and workshops.

Captive implies a host of different scenarios including zoos, aquaria, educational, animal sanctuaries, research centers, propagation, rehabilitation and rescue centers. These facilities vary widely in their rationale for keeping animals captive, photography being at the bottom of the list. Many have a professional staff of veterinarians, nutritionists and caretakers. The better ones keep their animals in reasonable enclosures with adequate space and will encourage on-site inspection. I have no issue with photographs taken at these places, although they should be properly labeled.

What I do take issue with is photographic profiteering at animal expense.

What began as adopting a few orphaned grizzly bear cubs and mountain lions (used in Disney films 40 years ago) has proliferated into big business and big money expanding to operations across the country. The price for a single session hourly rate for an individual species like an African lion, grizzly bear, or snow leopard can run up to $500.00 per person. Cat species like cougar, lynx and bobcat are $200.00 per session; smaller species like raccoon and skunks are $150.00; plus there is often a $50.00 surcharge per person for interactions of mothers and babies. Group workshops can cost upwards of $1,800.00 for five days per person.

The list of species photographed at Game Farms is lengthy and besides those already mentioned include black bear, Siberian tiger, deer, wolf, wolverine, snowshoe hare, coyote, fox, badger, pine marten, mink, porcupine, fisher, otter and turkey. These animals are often referred to as “wildlife models,” “animal models,” and “animal actors” or “ambassadors,” a term historically used by zoos.

Three hundred and sixty-five days a year, Game Farm animals are kept in cages that are typically far too small for any species. With dimensions measuring 6′ x 12′ or even smaller, sometimes housing four to five individuals like foxes or wolves, these enclosures are more akin to small jails.

Game Farm animals are transported to a variety of environments that mimic or might visually pass for the “natural setting” where the species may be found in the wild in North America. However, exotic species like the snow leopard from the Himalayas may be staged against a rocky outcrop of Glacier National Park, or a Siberian tiger posed in the snowy woodlands near Bozeman, Montana, or even African lions reclining on slick red rocks in the canyons of Utah.

Although it must be a compelling experience to photograph the animals in such settings, especially the large carnivores, these staged photographs misrepresent the animals and their natural environments and affect the credibility of photography.

Since Game Farm photography workshops and tours are offered year-round, in order to get photographs with different backgrounds during all seasons, many of the Game Farm animals are shipped cross-country from Montana to Minnesota, Vermont, Utah and Arizona in trailers or on flat bed trucks in their cages covered with tarps. Not only are they forced to endure the sounds and smells of each other but also the sounds and smells of tires, interstate highways and big cities. One has to remember that the auditory and olfactory senses in animals are much keener than humans. The emotional stress from the noise, the smells, the darkness and natural predators in cages being stacked together is unimaginable.

Any layperson on the street would likely agree that forcing animals to perform for several hours per day while “wandering around freely” in so-called natural settings and then putting them back into chain linked cages is cruel and inhumane.

Familiar Arguments and Issues

An argument in support of the acceptability of Game Farms has been made that when these animals are born and raised in captivity they are no longer wild. That when their basic needs of food and water have been met, they no longer need a lot of space or large territories like their brethren in the wild. For these animals, their cages are all they know and they seem to be quite “content.”

I totally disagree with that line of thinking. It is a myth that animals who are provided food do not also need open space. Their natural social behavior relies on their ability to travel even when they are NOT seeking food. For example, David Mech, the world’s expert on wolves, discovered that it is social factors and NOT food related factors that have the greatest influence on the social behavior of wolves.

Dr. Marc Bekoff, world-renowned animal activist, carnivore expert and author of The Emotional Lives of Animals has written, “It’s a lame and self-serving argument to claim that zoo animals are happy because they get free meals, a safe place to sleep, and health insurance—wolves and other wide-ranging carnivores have to roam and have to be free to associate with individuals who they want to be with and not be forced to live with those with whom they’re caged.”

Bekoff also states that, “Five USA zoos are phasing out their elephant exhibits because they can’t meet the social, physical, or emotional needs of these animals as well as the needs of wide-ranging carnivores. People are fond of saying animals don’t need this or that but never provide evidence; where is the data?”

It is sometimes stated that the “animal models” appear to be comfortable going back to their cage when the photo session is over. I would suggest this kind of behavior has more to do with an animal seeking the “relative security” of its cage—the environment it’s familiar with—after being in a strange place where it has been poked, prodded and paraded around in front of a group of photographers.

Furthermore, just because wild animals that are caged can be somewhat socialized and trained does not mean they are domesticated and that they “like it.” They remain genetically wild.

A similar behavior was witnessed when wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park. Some individuals were too afraid to leave their large holding pens. Does that mean that wolves actually are “content” being penned? I don’t think so. The difference between the reintroduced wolves and those at Game Farms is that the Yellowstone wolves soon moved out of their cages and into the wild. They had the choice of freedom. They have now repopulated most of Yellowstone’s 2.2 million acres and the rest of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Trainers and handlers at Game Farms use a variety of methods, both positive and negative, to make animals perform for photographers and to do things that are totally contrary to the animals’ normal behavior. For example, the website for Animals of Montana states, “Our grizzlies love to perform whether for still photography or video. They will amaze you by running towards the camera, standing on command, snarling viciously or posing cute for the camera. The selection is yours at Animals of Montana. Be sure to visit our Gallery page to see some outstanding examples of the kind of images you can capture!” Does the fact an animal can be trained to do things against its nature make it right? How does Animals of Montana know that their “grizzlies love to perform?”

What happens to the non-cooperative animal? Animals at some Game Farms are forced (sometimes using electric shock cattle prods) to perform on command.

Abuses reported by photographers and cinematographers who have visited Game Farms range from withholding food before a photo session, to the use of a piano wire around the neck of a wolf, which was jerked whenever the wolf looked bored and inattentive to the choke-chained mountain lion, drug through the forest until it was stumbling in order to teach it a lesson.

The most popular season is springtime, when baby animals bred and born on site at the Game Farm are brought out. These baby “animal models” are the biggest attraction for photographers and, consequently, the biggest moneymakers.

Dr. Bekoff, who co-founded Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals with Jane Goodall, asks if Game Farms have breeder animals whose main purpose is to produce cute photogenic youngsters who are also easy to handle. If so, what do they do with the animals once they’re done with them—once they can’t be used to breed or once they’re no longer sought after for pictures? Bekoff worries about a potential analogy with”puppy mills” where there are stud animals who breed endlessly and then are either sold or put to sleep once they’re no longer useful. What happens to all the Game Farm animals who have lost their utility, who are no longer animal model photogenic, who are no longer able to breed or who have just grown old? Are these animals who have spent their lives in the “service” of photography retired and cared for or are they now doomed to be sold to the “canned hunt” game farm, where the chance to kill these rare animals is marketed as a “once in a lifetime” trophy opportunity? Is there any rescue facility that may take them? Or are they just taken out back and discreetly disposed of?

Some Game Farm photographers may argue that many of the above issues don’t really matter. They believe that certain animals are just impossible to photograph in the wild so they “need” to go to Game Farms to fill their portfolios. In the end the photograph justifies the means. It is all about the image.

The truth is that Game Farm animal photographs are rarely labeled as such—photographers, editors and publishers, are, after all, selling an “illusion” of a wild animal. And the truth remains that because these images aren’t labeled, most people don’t know that the animals depicted in the glossy pages of a magazine are, in fact, from Game Farms.

For years, people asked me why I didn’t have pictures of cougars, and when I explained to them that 99% of all cougar pictures are from Game Farms, and that I wasn’t willing to photograph animals in that situation, they understood. It also killed my incentive to spend months or years trying to photograph a cougar in the wild when I knew anyone with a camera could go to a game farm and get multiple pictures of a cougar in an hour. I had accepted the fact that cougar was a species I would possibly never see or photograph.

However, serendipitously in the winter of 1999, a cougar and her three six-month old kittens showed up in a den on Miller Butte on the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming. The den was approximately 125 yards from the road in a closed area. Though I knew there was little chance of a good image at that distance, I spent 42 days shooting with a borrowed 800 mm lens and stacking a 2x and a 1.4x converter, basically shooting through a coke bottle, trying to get a handful of decent images. I shot 500 rolls of film. Dozens of photographers, filmmakers and wildlife observers came to photograph and witness this extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime scene. The National Elk Refuge estimated 15,000 people came specifically to see the family of cougars. This rare opportunity changed my life, and the following year I helped co-found the Cougar Fund. More recently, in the fall of 2008, I had my first opportunity to photograph a lynx who was hunting ducks in Denali National Park, AK. I can’t imagine how different the experience of photographing a Game Farm cougar and lynx must be.

Even though many animals may be very difficult to photograph in the wild, it is those rare images that are special and valuable. Besides, where are the craft, knowledge, challenge, experience, art, serendipity, luck and magic in a Game Farm photograph? Where is the pride and personal satisfaction for the photographer? There is not a species that I am aware of that exists in captivity that cannot be photographed in the wild.

The proliferation of Game Farm photography has, for many, taken away the passion, initiative, sacrifice and motivation that would otherwise drive someone to spend long periods of time making that perfect image of a rare animal in the wild.

Oftentimes photographers want to get ahead and are willing to take shortcuts. With modern camera equipment and a highly trained wolf, bear, wolverine or fox posed in a perfect setting it is quite easy to take good images. You can forego all the years of learning about natural history and animal behavior. No need for knowledge about the ecosystem, landscape or weather. No “decisive moments” here. It’s all taken care of—the handler will put the animal where he thinks it would make a nice picture, or you can arrange it yourself. For a price, you and your special “wildlife model” can be flown via helicopter to a high mountain backdrop. Wild animals always love flying in helicopters—it all seems so natural.

These chronic Game Farm photographers often believe that one cannot remain competitive in the wildlife photography field unless they have photos of every animal. When magazine publishers call needing a photo of a lynx, they must have one. Some individual animals at Game Farms have become “recognized” by editors and they are no longer willing to purchase rights to those images. These same photographers have severely diluted the market and, ironically, are often the ones most vocal about the decline in photographic stock sales. In a strange twist of fate, they have become their own competition.

Some seasoned professional Game Farm photographers say they no longer shoot at Game Farms. The reality is it’s not because they have turned against the practice but that their stock libraries are overflowing with every species in every imaginable pose and situation and they no longer “need” to add to their collection.

One former Game Farm workshop leader who has turned against the practice, professional photographer Jess Lee, questions much about the ethics of Game Farm photography including how tours are “sold” and how many workshop leaders tell clients, “You will be able to sell these images for years to come.” Jess has said, “The reality is quite different and the images from Game Farms are a dime a dozen.”

There are a few remaining rationales for photographing at Game Farms such as:

  • It is better to photograph at Game Farms than to harass animals in the wild.
  • It is safer to photograph at Game Farms than to come too close to a wild animal.
  • Photographs of Game Farm animals help educate kids, preserve ecosystems and promote conservation of endangered species.

The last point above is the most often abused justification. Anyone who thinks their photograph of an enslaved animal is acting as an “ambassador” to help educate, preserve habitat or save endangered species has a curious view of nature, wildness and animal welfare.

So, when made under these circumstances of captive enslavement, what “value” could any photograph have other than monetary?

It has been my experience that when image buyers, whether it be a magazine editors, private collectors, book publishers or calendar buyers, realize that they have spent money on pictures of Game Farm animals, they feel duped. They are incensed and angered to find out the truth.

This cheapens and devalues not only any photograph but puts at risk the credibility of the entire profession of wildlife and nature photography.

And finally, to support Game Farm photography is to deny that animals, other than humans, have feelings and emotions—that animals other than us do not feel pain and suffering, joy and sorrow, fear and despair.

Those who care need to speak out.

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 NatureScapes.net LLC.

About the Author

Tom Mangelsen’s photography is showcased in 16 Images of Nature® galleries with illustrations for 20 children’s books and multiple leading nature and art magazines including Audubon, National Geographic, Life, Wildlife Art and National Wildlife. His published fine art books include Images of Nature: The Photography of Thomas D. Mangelsen (now in its twelfth printing); Polar Dance: Born of the North Wind; Spirit of the Rockies: The Mountain Lions of Jackson Hole; and The Natural World, based exclusively on his work in panoramic format. Tom was named BBC’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year (1994) and the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA) Outstanding Nature Photographer of the Year (2000). He is a charter member of NANPA. For more information, go to www.mangelsen.com.

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