Phony Wildlife Photography Gives a Warped View of Nature

Phony Wildlife Photography Gives a Warped View of Nature

The dark side of those wondrous wildlife photographs. 

By Ted Williams
Published: March-April 2010

Inspired by Disney were Marlin Perkins, host of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom (premiering in 1963), and Marty Stouffer, host of the Public Broadcasting Service's Wild America (premiering in 1982). Like Disney they were pioneers working in a standards vacuum, but they set a new bar for nature fakery. Perkins was forever having his young assistants lasso and wrestle terrified tame animals to "rescue" them. "They were totally ruthless," Wyoming cinematographer Wolfgang Bayer told the Denver Post. "They would throw a mountain lion into a river and film it going over a waterfall."Wild Kingdom still airs on Animal Planet. Stouffer was no less brazen. In 1995--after he was fined $300,000 for cutting an illegal trail through the property of the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies to his illegal hunting camp on Forest Service land--his staffers began opening up to the press, reporting, for example, that he staged fatal confrontations between predators and prey. In his film Dangerous Encounters, a cougar is shown "attacking" a cross-country skier. It's a playful pet roughhousing with its owner. Stouffer is still cashing in on Wild America episodes and Dangerous Encounters through and other outlets.
"With photos you can include notes, but it's hard to interrupt a movie," observes respected wildlife-film maker Chris Palmer. For the National Wildlife Federation's 1997 IMAX film Wolves,he rented models from Animals of Montana. "Sections of this film were made possible by employing captive wolves," reads one of the credit lines. That was more than most filmmakers were doing 13 years ago, but like photo credits, movie credits often go unread. Palmer now uses that "mistake" as a teachable moment in his lectures and in his book Shooting in the Wild, to be published in May by Sierra Club Books. "Since then I've learned about game farms," he told me. "Animals are kept in small cages and lead miserable lives. And they're placed in even smaller cages and taken on the road for days to some wild place."

Audubon's design director,
 Kevin Fisher, has "no doubt we've unknowingly run game-farm photos in the past." The staff knows of at least one mistake--an Animals of Montana cougar in the November-December 2009 issue. They figured it out at the last minute but didn't have time to replace it. "We are definitely more vigilant now," says photo editor Kim Hubbard.
Such errors are even easier to make when one deals with photo stock agencies. I saw an image of a game-farm cougar on the National Geographic site and asked if it was wild. They didn't "have that information." Animals Animals/Earth Scenes, Getty Images, and Corbis Images--all teeming with game-farm animals--said they had no way of telling if they were captive or wild. NHPA wildlife and nature stock photography labels some but not all captive shots. The only agency I could find that seemed conscientious was Minden Pictures. I clicked on an image of a cougar, and 17 "key words" came up, one of which was "captive." But no information was offered for another cougar. With Minden's help I later discovered it had been shot at Wild Bunch Ranch game farm in Idaho.
There is, however, some gray in the debate about captive-wildlife images. This from genuine wildlife photographer Joel Sartore: "People aren't getting off their couches and seeing wildlife in the flesh anymore. So game farms can provide an appreciation of how majestic these animals are." And game-farm advocates have a good point when they argue that too many photographers in the wild can stress wildlife and habituate it to humans. Still, I can't think that if facilities like Triple D and its posh guest house were to vanish, their clientele would rush into the wild to squat for months in snow, sleet, and rain. 
Where there's no gray is in the need for honesty. In this regard there's been dramatic progress in wildlife documentaries such as the BBC's Planet Earth series, the new Disney films, material on the Discovery Channel, and PBS'sNature. These days there is little that I (or anyone) can positively identify as nature fakery or animal abuse. 
All the big magazines devoted in whole or part to wildlife are now wrestling with how best to do the right thing. Audubon will not knowingly publish game-farm shots, and will clearly indicate in captions when animals are photographed in captivity (or in credits in rare situations where captions aren't possible). Sierra tries to avoid captive shots, but when it does run them it labels them in the credits. Natural History uses few captive photos and includes the information in the story or captions. Smithsonian runs few and labels them in the gutter credit line. It won't publish game-farm shots. Two years ago, after taking heavy flak for nature fakery, Defenders of Wildlifedecided to severely limit the number of captive images it runs in its magazine and calendars. "It struck me how hypocritical it was for an organization like Defenders to support operations that breed animals only so photographers can make pictures," says photo editor Charles Kogod. National Geographic won't knowingly publish game-farm photos, and when it runs a captive shot it's identified as such and is almost always an animal used for article-related research. 
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Ted Williams

Ted Williams is freelance writer.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine


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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