Alley in Pisa, Italy

by Lars Kotthoff

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I am not a wildlife photographer and frankly I have little interest in wildlife photography outside of the birds and squirrels outside of my kitchen window. I do however enjoy looking at some of the many great wildlife photos out there. I have recently came across a comment by someone on a travel photography blog questioning the ethics of many wildlife photos on 500px namely owl photos and photos of skittish bugs that "appear unusually cooperative". This person speaks of live baiting owls to get otherwise impossible shots (in-flight/ flying directly at the photographer/ landing) and refrigerating bugs or placing them in various substances. This person has called such practices unethical, disrespectful to the animal, cruel...

I always tend to associate animal cruelty and unethical treatment of animals with the pharmaceutical and such industries but it never occurred to me that a wildlife photographer, one who is in the business of capturing the essence of animals in the wild, could possibly be associated with such things...

Then I was thinking about all the unbelievable animal shots (not only owls and insects) on 500px and elsewhere and begun to wonder whether this is a normal and I was just unaware? Forgive my ignorance but do wildlife photographers often stage shots using bating, live baiting and sedation? Is this a common practice?

Edit: I just punched a few other things into Google and it seems that renting wild animals for photo-shoots is also not uncommon.

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I tend to agree with the guy, but I don't have the proof as it were. As an outdoors type, my experience says most wildlife stay well clear of human beings, often for good reason, as we're not exactly the nicest species on the planet. Either way, I also see these practices as unethical. –  John Cavan Apr 19 '12 at 4:07
    
Shades of Marty Stouffer (I loved his show, growing up). –  drewbenn Apr 19 '12 at 4:43
    
@JohnCavan You're right, most animals will stay clear of people unless they've been habituated to people. However, if you go to remote places where humans haven't colonized (like the Seychelles) the wildlife isn't wary of people. It's both exciting and sad to see how the animals trust people in those places. –  nwcs Apr 19 '12 at 13:16
    
good question, it makes us think. I've done. I've put seed in my hand and shot chickadees landing... –  Paul Cezanne Apr 20 '12 at 3:42
    
See Barbeque Duck for contrived yet wholly free range and natural shot :-). –  Russell McMahon Apr 21 '12 at 13:21
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6 Answers 6

up vote 8 down vote accepted

This addresses only my opinion on one less-central aspect of the question:

I agree that the more extreme forms of what you describe are unethical or immoral.
As well as avoiding mistreatment of the target animal, I would personally never use live-bait for anything, but that's a personal choice and many would be happy to do so.

But I don't see too much wrong with using food as a bait or attractant. This may be meat (bits of dead animals) for Owls or Falcons and bread or grain for sparrows or whatever. The point is that the ethics of the treatment of the target animal and the ethics of the treatment of the bait can be separaed. In my case I'd be happy to use meat which met my standards for treatment but a vegetarian or Vegan may be horrified at that choice.

The photo below is not presented for any technical merit (you just TRY and get a good photo of the about fastest bird on earth :-) ) but because of its relevant here.

This is a NZ Falcon. It lives in a specialist raptor rescue center - birds arrive in damaged condition and stay long enough to get them back to a point where they will probably survive in the wild. This bird is free to do what it chooses every single time they release it - which is frequently. Even when "in captivity" NZ Falcons live on the very very edge of being always genuinely wild. A week or so on the loose and it will not come back. But when fed and cared for it will return reliably.

This one is heading for me not because of my gastronomic attractiveness but because a young lady (one of only 7 qualified falconers in the country) is standing behind me with an unknown piece of dead animal on her gauntlet and I'm an incidental in its path.

Is this ethical? I'd find it hard to see it wasn't (ignoring for now arguments re feeding bits of one animal to keep the latter alive). Is this photo (or any better one that others may manage in the circumstances) less "real" due to the circumstances? [Shame about the fence - I left it in here but it's edited out in other versions]. And, yes, I'd say it's less real - and in the no-fence versions I know the circumstances, even though others may not. If wholly wild it would probably have gone and found a live rabbit that wasn't lurking just behind me.

How far is it acceptable to extend this treatment? of bird or environment. I could set up a hide with non live bait. These Falcons come to a lure swung in circles at speed by their handlers - emulating a live animal. Enough :-)

enter image description here

500mm f/8 Minolta mirror lens (hence the bad bokeh).
Minolta 7D, 1/750s, ISO 800, f8.


Barbeque Duck: <- on website here, but larger image via image download below.

How does this rate in terms of baiting and training?
The duck is "wild" (or as wild as a Mallard duck can be in an urban environment where they become accustomed to people).
It is free to come and go as it wishes and it spends perhaps 30 minutes to a few hours per day on my property.
The picture is unposed to the extent that the duck was not compelled or led or drugged etc. It is where it is entirely of its own choice.
However, I did influence the choice :-).

Each day in summer we put out wheat and bread in the later after noon for ducks to eat. Typically 3 to 10 duck families breed and raise ducklings on our property each year. There was a BBQ (shown) in our yard and I decided to try to persuade a duck to do just what you see here. Each night when I put out the wheat I would put several handfuls on the BBQ and the rest in the yard. After a while this duck would come to expect that there would be wheat on the BBQ and would go there preferentially. After a while it would settle on top of he BBQ afer eating. Photos happened. So:
Baiting / training / posing / contrived.
Wild, free range, uncompelled.

"Legitimate"?

enter image description here

Right click and download image for 3000 x 2000 version.

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FWIW, I found the bokeh intriguing, not bad, and the pole of the fence is not badly composed. So this is a nice shot to my eyes :) –  Francesco Apr 19 '12 at 13:02
    
Thanks for your thoughts. Here in the north hunters commonly bait bears and large game even weeks before the kill so I should not be so surprised. I guess using a non live bait is a fair game it's that I thought all these photos were of wild animals in their natural environment and the photographer just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I am learning that this is not necessarily so. –  Jakub Apr 19 '12 at 13:36
    
agreed with @Francesco; a nice shot. –  Jakub Apr 19 '12 at 13:38
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I've read some on this subject as well. I know that baiting is a very common practice, especially with wildlife photography. I've seen it mentioned by a number of photographers with stunning pictures. In my opinion, it's only unethical if you fail to disclose that fact or present the picture as an accurate depiction of reality. I would say it's the same ethic as photographing animals in the zoo. If you present it as reality that is unethical.

Staging and renting animals is also acceptable to me if that fact is disclosed when asked and it's not presented as natural animal behavior. So, for me, the key element is whether the photographer is honest about how they came about the image and not the image itself. Photography is already a bit unreal because we have altered the scene by being there, choosing the lens and exposure, color choice, etc.

Now when it comes to macro photography I've not been able to get the same amount of information. It's my understanding that it's considered unethical to use carbon dioxide or cold on insects to slow/stop them and then place them in a more favorable setting. I also have seen that most professional nature organizations explicitly state that they will not allow their members to do that. However, I do understand that it is done by a number of people.

I think it's a gray area to move an insect from one place to another to get a better shot but that is done all the time. And trapping an insect and putting them into a studio setting is also pretty common. It's about the only way to get some of those amazing shots. I think it's a gray area because it's not real but it's ethical, to me, if the insect/subject is not harmed in any way and released exactly where caught.

As nature photographers, the welfare of our subjects should always be the first consideration.

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Agreed, baiting of birds seems fine to me so long it is disclosed. I don't feel it's right to rent and stage animals in the wild and call it wildlife photography. Who are these people that keep wildlife for this sort of profit? As for ZOOs I personally do not have a problem there; I came across the photos of Wolf Ademeit whose specialty is photographing animals in ZOOs. He's also very upfront about it making it known that these are not wildlife photos. –  Jakub Apr 19 '12 at 13:53
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On the subject of staging, I think this is 100% fine -- specifically because we all do it, at least a little, simply by choosing how to frame the photo. Beyond that, I have further staged some bird photos by pruning a tree in my line of sight and I've even tied a branch to pull it in one direction a bit to give me the angle I wanted. When I go to the zoo and shoot animals, those are all in staged environments; granted it's there to make the animal more comfortable, but it's staged, nonetheless. I see no problem with it.

Baiting and sedating are entirely different practices, IMO, which can be shady and can be ethically questionable. But they can also be necessary to better understand an animal's behavior, or to even see the animal at all.

I know some animal fanatics who decry the horror of keeping animals in zoos and aquariums and places that otherwise show off animals. My response to them is always this: how better can people learn about those animals than in-person and up-close like that? Especially kids, whose interest could be piqued and could cause them to pursue a career in veterinary sciences, biologies, or any other field. Seeing that wildlife is specifically what gets us excited and interested in these things, and may be what causes us to want to know more. I view baiting and sedating similar to zoos in this way: necessary for us to learn, unfortunate as they may be.

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I don't see a ethical problem as long as the animals are well treated and unharmed. However, if anything is staged or otherwise unnatural then I think it's fraudulent to not say so when the picture gives the impression otherwise.

Of course there are gray areas to all this. My main interest in photography is nature photography. I like creating interesting pictures of real things most people don't get to see or aren't willing to take the effort to see. While there is certainly some art to it, I think of myself more as a scientist recording data and depecting real facts. As such I consider staged or otherwise manipulated scenes as intellectual fraud unless any unnatural methods are disclosed.

However, what is manipulation? A photographer just being present can cause animals to behave differently than they otherwise would. What if you went into the wild with a chain saw and cut down a single tree that was in the way of what you considered the perfect landscape shot? I think most here, me certainly included, would find that immoral because of the damage done to nature. But what if you bent down or cut off a single blade of grass that was in the way of a great flower shot. I admit to having done that. It doesn't feel so wrong, but how is it really all the different from cutting the tree? Shouldn't the grass have the same right to grow the tree does? What about all the small plants and bugs you inadvertantly trampled on the five mile treck to take that great shot? We are OK with some level of disruption to be in nature and to take pictures of it, but not with others.

I once made a bird feeder out of branches lying around in the woods and set up a camera close to it. This resulted in some great closeups of birds. Was that unethical? Fradulent? All the birds came there on their own, were wild, free to leave, and unharmed. Is a picture of a tufted titmouse sitting on a branch that happens to be part of a bird feeder different from the same bird sitting on the same branch when it was still on the tree just 100 meters away? The bird is real, the branch is real, the bird came to that branch on its own, but yet it doesn't seem quite right. If you deliberately pass it off as a wild shot, that definitely seems wrong to me. What if you say nothing? Does the apparently wild shot sortof make a implied promise that it is in fact wild which the bird feeder shot breaks?

It's not so clear cut when you get near the edge and start looking at the details.

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I think there is question of what is real, what is wildlife, and what is ethical.

I have no proof but I get the impression that quite a lot of macro insect shots are staged. Either from dead or sedated insects. My theory for thinking so is that for example an ant hardly ever stands still, and some shots as seen on 500px have such a high quality that it becomes unlikely that the photographer could come so close and freeze the image in a perfect pose. It's possible, yet it is unlikely in those quantities.

I have the same suspicion concerning some bird shots. Wild owls don't fly straight at you for no reason. In fact, seeing them in the true wild in the first place is hard enough.

I consider such manipulation to not be true wildlife. I consider hurting, freezing or killing an animal for the sake of a good shot not to be ethical.

That doesn't mean it is pure evil. It's still photography, it's just not true wildlife photography. Of course there is no hard boundary for what is real wildlife, the grey area is large, but to me it concerns spotting a specie in its natural habitat based on your own skill without bait.

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In my experience you can avoid staging most shots (and I've never staged them) or indeed interacting with the animals at all (in fact I try to avoid any interaction with the animals, going so far as to avoid the use of even artificial lighting).
It does however mean you're going to need a lot of patience and may not get some of the more 'spectacular' shots, or get them less frequently.
None of the below are staged. One of them was a captive animal but in a free movement environment (an environmental display in a zoo, the animal had the run of an area several thousand square meters in size).
enter image description here http://www.usefilm.com/Image.asp?ID=1439495
http://www.usefilm.com/Image.asp?ID=1416769
http://www.usefilm.com/Image.asp?ID=1333503
http://www.usefilm.com/Image.asp?ID=1319700
http://www.usefilm.com/Image.asp?ID=1231858
http://www.usefilm.com/Image.asp?ID=1183497

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