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 Amazon.com 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.