Phony Wildlife Photography Gives a Warped View of Nature
Then there’s the humane issue. For many game-farm animals life is hard and brief. According to documents I obtained from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Animals of Montana—a game farm near Bozeman at least as popular as Triple D—euthanized eight wolves in 2007 because they were “dangerous.” In other words, their behavior was too wolflike. The spring 2009 issue of Currents, NANPA’s newsletter, quotes a photographer who requested anonymity as saying this about her first and last visit to Animals of Montana: “The owner took out a mountain lion, but the lion didn’t want to come. There was kicking and dragging and yelling.”
I definitely needed to see Animals of Montana’s famous grizzlies, which “love to perform [and] will amaze you by running towards the camera, standing on command, snarling viciously or posing cute.” But when I tried to book a session, Tracy Krueger, companion and business partner of owner Troy Hyde, said she was “excited” to report that the operation was “switching hands.” This, I learned from court documents, was because Hyde had filed false information with the feds and had been convicted of illegal wildlife trafficking in violation of the Endangered Species Act and the Lacey Act. On April 27, 2008, shortly after the USDA moved to terminate Hyde’s exhibitor’s license, Krueger applied for a license. The USDA saw it as a ruse—i.e., “an attempt to circumvent the impending termination”—and rejected the application. On June 6, 2008, Hyde’s lawyer, Bret Hicken, applied for a license. The USDA saw that as another ruse, noting that to obtain a license any new operator would have to purchase animals and property. Apparently that has happened, because on November 9, 2009, Hicken signed a consent agreement with the agency to reopen the game farm as Animal Industries, but this wouldn’t happen in time for my article. According to the Associated Press, animals from Hyde’s game farm “have appeared in a number of films, including some by National Geographic, Turner Original Productions, and the BBC.”
While in Montana I tried to visit Wild Eyes Photo Adventures in Columbia Falls, which had illegally trafficked in wildlife in violation of the Lacey Act and “willfully” violated the Animal Welfare Act. I had reliable information that Wild Eyes kept river otters in small cages, but I was unable to confirm this because Wild Eyes is out of business. I couldn’t visit the DeYoung Family Zoo, a game farm in Wallace, Michigan, still in business despite its owner, Harold DeYoung, being busted for Lacey Act and Endangered Species Act violations. “What do they do with all these babies?” inquires genuine wildlife photographer Don Jones about the industry’s “new baby” promos, which appear like crabgrass every spring. No one knows, but in 2004 a game farm in Sandstone, Minnesota—still in business as Minnesota Wildlife Connection—sold its tame black bear Cubby for $4,650 to country music star Troy Gentry, who then illegally “hunted” and killed him in his pen with a bow and arrow.
‘‘Nature fakery has been going on in photography since the days of glass plates,” declares genuine wildlife photographer Les Line, Audubon’s editor from 1966 to 1991. “The earliest issues of Audubon [circa 1903] tried to pass off photos of stuffed birds as live ones. That’s minor compared to what’s been happening since.”
Especially impressive were the innovations of Disney in the 1950s and ’60s. In apologizing for the early films, which he helped produce, Roy Disney accurately noted that they promoted “awareness” of nature—at least nature the way he and his colleagues depicted it. Since then the Disney Company has progressed light years in quality and honesty with films like Earth (2009), but the early work provides important historical perspective and explains some of our society’s lingering misperceptions about nature. For example, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s 2008 documentary Cruel Camera takes a behind-the-scenes look at White Wilderness(1958), revealing that the polar bear cub bouncing spectacularly down a snowy, rock-studded mountain was thrown over the side. Lemmings don’t commit mass suicide any more than hummingbirds hitch rides on southbound geese. But Disney paid kids in Churchill, Manitoba, to catch lemmings, then transported them to non-habitat in Alberta where a turntable flung them off a cliff and into “the sea” by the dozens. White Wilderness, which won an Oscar, is still sold on DVD as a “true-life adventure.”