I’m extra cautious out there as a photographing fool. I feel I owe the animals my respect when they allow me into their inner sanctum to photograph them. Knowing their very lives depend on wariness toward me, I do not take it lightly when a wild animal allows me the privilege of documenting her life and behavior. I tread slowly, carefully and don’t linger if I see that my presence is causing any danger or distress. I wrote a bit about this in a post last year: Wildlife and Nature Photography Ethics.
When people lure animals, domestic or wild, into a trusting relationship of interaction, usually through appealing to their primary need for food — and then choose to harm them — to me, that’s one of the least noble expressions of human choice. It’s a betrayal of an implied trust.
In photography, this issue comes up time and again in terms of how humans treat or habituate wild animals. And how the behavior of the photographer affects the short-term or long-term well-being of the wild subject. There are some recognized standards, like those applied by the North American Nature Photography Association. As with anything there’s also some contention over how these guidelines apply to each individual situation.
Audubon Magazine recently ran a piece on this subject, entitled Picture Perfect. It’s definitely worth a read. The article addresses the game farms used for various wildlife shots, including those pristine closeups you often see in wildlife publications and hunting magazines.
The towhee photo gallery below plays into the issue of trust since I shot these images during a highly vulnerable time for birds: bath time. I was meandering by a shallow creek and saw this Spotted Towhee splashing around.
If Spotted Towhees had middle names, they’d all be Spotted “Elusive” Towhee or Spotted “Furtive” Towhee.
The towhee’s first, natural reaction was to scoot back into the shrubs. Normally, I’d move back at this point and give the bird a bit of space to do his thing. But before I could, he gave me the benefit of the doubt and hopped back into his bathing pool for some splashes. As these photos attest, his eye was on me the entire time. I sat at a distance — my 300mm 4/3 lens is actually an effective 600mm (35mm equivalent). And once I grabbed a few shots, I let him take the rest of his bath in peace.
Anyone who’s out there on the trails, with a camera, knows these moments happen. They are precious beyond description and I’d go so far as to say transcendent. Meeting the eyes of a deer in the scrub . . . coming upon a Killdeer nest with a parent so protective she’ll fake her own disability to lure you away from the nest . . . catching a mother opossum by surprise, toting her young in the dusky quiet . . . in all of those moments, the animal has a split second to contemplate her next move, to assess my danger as a human. I’m not perfect in my behavior. I muck up. But I do think it’s important to recognize intent . . . that in all of those moments, I have a choice about how I treat that vulnerability. I choose not to take advantage of that trust.
Nice post, Ingrid. And fantastic images!
I really liked that you grabbed a few shots then left. So many people after they’ve grabbed a few shots then try to push the animal even farther sine in their mind they have nothing to lose. They have their “insurance” shots so if they spook the animal, no harm done. I see it time and time again.
One thing I’ve found, at least here in eastern Iowa, is that if it takes much effort to get to, most of the wannabes don’t make the effort.
At my local nature center there is a flat paved trail that is swamped with people. Hikers, jiggers, bikers, you name it. The amount of wildlife you see near the trail is reflective of that. Unless you’re there very early or very late, you don’t see much of anything.
There’s another trail, unpacked that climbs up from the tallgrass prairie to a pine grove up on top of a hill. In all the years I’ve filmed at the nature center I’ve probably encountered maybe three or four people, all that had a total respect for nature and wildlife.
I’ve found that the wildlife here is more abundant and less likely to bolt at the first sight of a human,
I’ve sat on a bench in the pine grove while a doe fed just off the trail. She accepted me as non threatening and I just sat there until she had moved off on her own.
People just don’t know what they’re missing by pushing wildlife. If they just held back and let nature do her thing not only would they have a great outdoor experience but they’d discover the magic that they’ve been missing.