Phony Wildlife Photography Gives a Warped View of Nature

Photograph by Andrew Geiger
Photograph by Andrew Geiger
Photograph by Andrew Geiger

Phony Wildlife Photography Gives a Warped View of Nature

The dark side of those wondrous wildlife photographs. 

By Ted Williams
Published: March-April 2010

Audubon has sent me to lots of wild places over the past 31 years, but I'd seen only one wolf and three cougars (a litter) until December 8, 2009. On that day, before noon in the Glacier National Park ecosystem of northwestern Montana, I encountered not just one wolf but two and not just one cougar but two! What were the chances of that?

Well, they were 100 percent, because I'd rented the animals for a photo shoot. As a photographer I've done my best work with Kodak disposable cameras, so advertising photographer Andrew Geiger would do the shooting under my direction. By his own admission Geiger lacks the patience to be a wildlife photographer, but that was okay because our subjects weren't wildlife. "Captive wildlife" is an oxymoron.

The "models," as the industry calls them, were beautiful and healthy, though. At 8:30 a.m.--after a long sleep and a hot breakfast in the Triple D guest house equipped with kitchen, refrigerator, TV, living room, and gas-fueled fireplace--I was ready for my three hours in the field. Behind the Triple D office Geiger and I met our first model--Jewel, a little two-year-old cougar who paced and mewed behind the bars in the back of the truck. By the time trainer Logan Saich had driven us to the scenic set leased by Triple D, the day had warmed from minus 24 degrees Fahrenheit to minus 16.

Saich led Jewel to high ground, where she posed like Kate Moss against magnificent snow-clad peaks. Surprised by the snow and ice, she raised and shook each paw the way my cat Moop had done the time she stepped in turpentine. Jewel was coming into heat, so she chased her melon-sized plastic ball only halfheartedly and swatted none too ferociously at the deer-hair toy Saich dangled in front of her. Still, this was the high point in her dreary day. On our way down Saich had to carry her, and she grabbed the last fence post with both front paws. The strong bond between trainer and model was obvious. "Good girl, good girl," Saich murmured when she let go. She purred when he scratched her behind the ears.

Back at the game farm, Attilli, the three-year-old cougar, performed better. He was obsessed with his ball, bounding over logs in pursuit and looking very fierce. Saich had difficulty prying it from his grasp. Once Saich rubbed leaves off Attilli's nose to make him more photogenic. All too soon for Attilli he was back in his cage. Then came Big John, the black wolf, who saluted everything in sight because he was the alpha male. Behind us 17 other wolves started a baleful chorus. Big John placed his forepaws on a rock, as he'd been trained, and snapped up the beef-heart treat Saich threw to him. "Good boy!" exclaimed Saich, and Big John whirled around, put his paws back on the rock, and fielded another treat. Even more enthused with the romp and treats was Lakota, the cream-colored wolf. He dashed around the enclosure, looking wild and voracious, then rolled on his back for a belly rub.

"You couldn't have gotten those shots in the wild," Triple D co-owner Jay Deist told me, and he was right. In 1972 he, his brother, and his father opened Triple D, but not for photographers. They were "going to save the world" by capturing and breeding vanishing wildlife. It didn't work out. But soon photographers began paying for sessions with the animals. Deist describes the early clientele as "very secretive, because they didn't want anyone to know the source." Concurrently, these amazing "wildlife photos" started showing up in magazines, calendars, and posters--close-up action shots with every whisker in perfect focus. Similar game farms sprang up around the country, though no one knows how many there are.

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Ted Williams

Ted Williams is freelance writer.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

Comments

In defense of the makers of

In defense of the makers of "Winged Migration", a clip is available on the DVD release showing how the movie was made.

I also have no problem with

I also have no problem with photographers getting pictures from zoos or "farms" as long as the animals are treated well AND they are honest in their disclosure about where the shots were taken. While any picture of a lion might be cool and promote donations and awareness the photographer who has taken the picture in the wild has produced a more honest view of the animal. Many animals in the wild will be thin and scruffy and sometimes full of ticks or other parasites. Their life is hard and we should recognize this, not be fooled into thinking that the sleek fattened lion from the zoo is from the wilds of Africa.

you must not be very observant, Ted

I've seen more wildlife than you on a Saturday afternoon walk with my dog. Of course I don't bother with photos - the current "trophy" of naturalist types these days, along with their bird lists. But this kind of misleading nonsense is to be expected from someone who advocates law breaking and killing of cats. Birds are OK, but the buggers shit on my car. Maybe you're not really a naturalist after all.

Natural nature?

@Jessie, et al: Off the top of my head, nature photos should be natural. Like so many things in the world today, we are the victims of widespread deception. Use the food industry as an example: the " term "all natural" means absolutely nothing, and yet people are still duped by it into thinking they're buying something healthy for them. We want what we want (including having our fantasies fed) and don't want to look behind the curtain to see how it's produced. I suppose the consumer can be held partially accountable for not asking too many questions, but it's very easy for clever people and corporations to mislead. I think the basic human inclination to believe, or want to believe, that we're being told the truth is exploited.

I have been a photographer for 30 years, though not a nature photog per se, and I am shocked by and was ignorant of these practices. I have shot wildlife pictures in zoos (SD Wild Animal Park for example), with long lenses, which I could arguably have passed off as shot in the wild. I would NEVER have done so, and it's a result of integrity and honesty being drilled into me by good editors in the newspaper business. In the early days of Photoshop, there were photographers FIRED for removing small distracting items from a photo, like a coke can. FIRED. You tell the story of the photo ... period. Now of course, with digital and wide distribution (e.g., Getty, Corbis) of photos from all kinds of sources, with little vetting for the integrity of the photos and photogs, it's very easy to claim ignorance. Don't ask, don't tell ... how convenient.

Of course, these photographers selling "nature" photos shot of captive animals and passing them off as shot in the wild know exactly what they are doing. They can get a much greater ROI (return on investment, of time and money) and improve their odds greatly of getting sold or published by doing this. It's cheating, a shortcut, and when people don't know they are being lied to it's appalling. There are genuine nature photographers who do wonderful work, which is debased by this fraud.

Having looked at the "hook and bullet" magazines for years, I had NO idea that the big atypical buck I saw the great shot of was a captive animal, even changing hands for big buck bucks (no, I didn't stutter), and kept on life support so his earning years could be stretched. Disgusting. I also had no idea that Marlin Perkins and his pal Jim would throw a wild cat into a river only to "rescue" it for the camera. My naîve innocence has been shattered ... I loved that show as a kid.

Editors and filmmakers have no excuses: They should know what they are publishing or putting out and whether it was produced honestly. Otherwise, they pass the fraud on, and they do it because it makes their jobs easier and their product "sexier" and therefore, more saleable. In the end it's all about the Benjamins (as it always seems to be, whether it's having 5 yr olds sewing inexpensive soccer balls in indentured servitude, or cougars living in cages for photographers) but it's still fraud.

Wildlife Photography

Cruelty and abuse of the animals is, of course, hideous and should be stopped. But I fail, completely, to comprehend your ethic about honest and dishonest photos. If the subject is a lion, then it's a lion, it can't be anything else, and when I look at the picture, it makes not the slightest difference to me whether it was wild or not (so long as it isn't mistreated). I'm just grateful that the photographer gives me the opportunity to view the magnificent animal. And yes, photos of beautiful animals DO encourage people to donate to conservationist funds. A bunch of printed words don't move me the way a photo of a tiger or a polar bear does. This seems to me rather like the hue and outcry when photographers began to use digital cameras instead of "real" cameras, i.e. film cameras. If a photographer wants to slog thru torrid jungles for months on end or shiver in a frozen wasteland, well, that's up to him (or her), and it makes for an interesting story. But it doesn't have much to do with the actual photos, which stand on their own, having good pose, angle, color, contrast and composition, or not.

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