Wildlife Photography Ethics Matter

--->--->Wildlife Photography Ethics Matter

Wildlife Photography Ethics Matter

2012-02-08T20:27:13+00:00February 8th, 2012|Uncategorized|15 Comments

Edited to Add (2/12/2012): This was posted to the local birding list today, about the situation at Boundary Bay where the video below was shot:

About 4:30pm a woman from [a rehabilitation society] up the road was seen walking out to the various groups and very kindly asking them to retreat back to the dike. She was very successful in doing so … she said that two owls had been brought in recently suffering from an ailment that they attribute to stress … They were both underweight and both owls died. Therefore, they are now going out on a regular basis to request that people stay on the dike and allow the owls to hunt normally.

I’m very glad they’re out there, but it should never have come to this. I realize it’s impossible to consistently patrol other photographers’ behavior, but I think those of us who work hard to abide by strict wildlife photography ethics, need to make sure that when we’re around, we at least try to educate on why wildlife photography ethics are important. I’m still surprised by the photographers standing by in this video without interfering. Can’t for the life of me understand that complacency, although upon further viewing, it looks as though they’re waiting for the owl’s reaction.

I’ve seen my share of questionable behavior out in the field, but this video got me worked up tonight. It was posted by a local birder who videotaped the madness that’s hit the Northwest as a result of the Snowy Owl irruption:

I can’t tell if the other two photographers are saying anything to Mr. Egregious, but if not, what th–? If I’d been there, that guy would have never cleared the tree without some intervention. Oh wait — I wouldn’t have been there, because the sign on the path clearly says that no one should venture into the habitat to disturb the owls.

Apparently, this type of behavior has been going on all season as a result of Snowy Owl fever. I’ve read accounts of respectful days between owls, birders and photographers. And then I’ve heard stories like the one shown above. I usually stay away from birding frenzies for this reason. I’d like to see the Snowies while they’re here, but have been torn about joining the melee. The owls are sticking around, despite the human intrusion. I hope they’re fattening up for their migration.

Think I’m a hard ass? Or think I’m justified?

The reality is that ours is a shrinking world in terms of habitat. It’s a growing world in terms of human population. It’s a bigger field in terms of who owns gear. And there seems to be an increasing sense of entitlement by humans (not just photographers), toward wild animals. I personally don’t think it’s that difficult to hold back and give the animal space. It does require resistance to temptation, and you will lose some shots. Often, though, the shots appear precisely because you sat and waited and didn’t encroach.

I always say that no photograph is worth the compromised well-being of the subject. I think it’s especially unfortunate when photographers go to these lengths for an image, when we, as a group, can be such good emissaries for the wild animals who literally depend on the good sense of humans for their survival.

Respectful photographers and birders — albeit many — observing owls from the path at Boundary Bay (Photo © John Biehler/Flickr):

Photo © John Biehler – Flickr Creative Commons

Previous post on wildlife ethics


  1. Mia McPherson February 9, 2012 at 3:36 am - Reply

    Ingrid, I watched the video and I could feel my blood pressure rising. I guess I am a hard ass too because I would have photographed that guy and reported him. That man’s behavior gives all bird photographers a black eye. There is NEVER a case where a photograph is worth more than the well being of the subject. Period.

    • ingrid February 9, 2012 at 12:58 pm - Reply

      Mia, I know. I wish I’d had a blood pressure cuff on my arm the first time I watched it. When I lived in the Bay Area, I witnessed a lot of disruptive behavior in regional parks — by people who simply did not understand what our relationship to wildlife should be. The most common was parents allowing their kids to harass, chase, throw rocks at and otherwise disturb wild birds. I contacted the regional park systems and asked if the would consider more education on this front — even signs at popular wildlife locations, explaining the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and so forth. They were receptive to my concerns but, as with everything else, budget constraints prevented all but bare bones efforts in this area. I have an ambition concerning wildlife education which I still hope to achieve … when I’m able to change course in my work and branch off into my own wildlife endeavors. A lot of people these days seem to feel they “own” wild animals, and can do as they see fit when they encounter them. I’m not sure how that ethic arose. It’s certainly not the one I grew up with. I’d like to be an instrument in changing that somehow.

  2. Ron Dudley February 9, 2012 at 4:42 pm - Reply

    No, you’re not a hard ass – that guy is an ignorant and selfish ass****. I noticed this clip posted on FB this morning and deliberattely didn’t watch it because I knew how PO’d I’d get but when I saw that you had posted it I watched it. Twice. And yes, I’m PO’d, big time. Your words on this post could have been my own, down to the last punctuation mark we so thoroughly agree on the subject. Thanks for posting the clip and I hope it gets hundreds of views! And that the anal sphincter who is the star of the show “enjoys” his notoriety.

    • ingrid February 9, 2012 at 7:38 pm - Reply

      Love the candor, Ron … and I agree. I had to sit and recompose a few times last night after watching the video, it had me pretty riled, as well. I can’t for the life of me get inside the head of someone who would do that. You’d think the scrutiny of the amassed birders and photographers would be enough to instill humility and maybe even an ounce of shame. But, that would be expecting way too much from an anal sphincter, me thinks.

  3. Bea Elliott February 15, 2012 at 5:36 am - Reply

    Wow – I just got an education! I see even those who shoot with a lens can be rude, disruptive and callous. Yes, it is a shrinking world regarding habitat… Sadly that will make these incidents of harassment that much more common. I did not realize that even creatures are paparazzi-threatened. It’s not what I wanted to learn… But thank you still for doing so.

    • ingrid September 15, 2012 at 2:13 pm - Reply

      Bea, I’m so sorry I neglected to reply to this comment at the time … simply an oversight. Situations like the Snowy Owl irruption bring out the worst because they are rare sightings that get a lot of publicity and attract throngs of people. Although I don’t have stats to support this, I suspect that over time, many photographers grow to be respectful of their subjects, once they get a few field lessons and comments from other photographers. Some don’t, of course — as evidenced by this video. The most disruptive behavior I tend to see when out photographing is people allowing their kids to chase birds and throw stones, etc. Or, people who think that flushing a flock of birds for a photo op is fun. That’s where I’ve had to do the most intervention on behalf of wildlife in public spaces. I cringe when I have to do it. I don’t like being “that lady” but someone has to stick up for the animals. I think something as simple as more signage could help. Most people don’t realize that almost all wild birds are legally protected from harassment, with stiff penalties if those laws were regularly enforced.

      • Bea Elliott September 15, 2012 at 4:57 pm - Reply

        No worries on being late… I’m notorious on that myself… Yes – More signs and more people who are “that lady” who cares! You can have all the laws in the world, but unless citizens vigilantly monitor them – Well, they’re just ineffective. Thanks for sticking up for the right side of wildlife!

  4. Katie (Nature ID) February 16, 2012 at 6:25 am - Reply

    Thanks, Ingrid. I needed to be reminded of this. I linked to this post and your Wildlife Photography Ethics & Philosophy page in my recent sea otter post. Generally, I have a high opinion of myself in how I try to keep my distance with animals and stay on trails, but I’ll admit I don’t ALWAYS follow my own rules.

    • ingrid February 16, 2012 at 12:18 pm - Reply

      Katie, thanks for the comment. I posted a note over at your blog in response. As I mentioned there, I don’t think any of us can interact with nature, without having some effect. Wildlife photography ethics are an important basis for actions, but understanding the natural history and behavior of animals goes a long way, too. For me, the more I learn about each species, the better I’m able to asses the reaction and my impact. And none of us is perfect in this regard. Plus … it’s the people who should most be paying attention to this stuff who don’t — and who won’t be reading any ethical guidelines online. 🙂

  5. Dale February 22, 2012 at 10:43 pm - Reply

    Disclaimer: I’m neither a birder nor a photographer – a friend sent me a link to your blog just for the snowy owl photos. What I saw on this video made me so furious! I could hardly believe what I was seeing.

    My friend said that she unwittingly followed other photographers down into the field (not of course getting anywhere near as close as the person in the video), then later saw your post and realized her mistake.

    Thank you for taking the trouble to post this. You are helping to educate people like me, who don’t know any better, before we have a chance to do something stupid (although I can’t imagine that guy didn’t know he was doing a VERY BAD THING).

    • ingrid February 22, 2012 at 11:52 pm - Reply

      Dale, thanks for stopping by and for this thoughtful reply. The thing is — as people commented on my other Snowy Owl post — we all make mistakes. And we all flush wildlife sometimes, just walking a trail or being a human presence in their world. I certainly have made my share of errors, too. But I think it’s what you do with the information you’re given, once you know and understand. I had a couple of offline discussions with photographers who refused to even concede that they were going against posted signs. It’s difficult to grasp that type of short-sightedness, but it’s out there. Thank you for your kind note and for taking the time to think about the Snowies. 🙂

  6. Denis September 13, 2012 at 4:01 am - Reply

    Guys are like a bunch of bloody vultures. I cant believe that video. People are so desperate these days for some recognition. Money can buy a camera but it cannot explain an real arsehole! I hope that these people are heavily fined in future. Like their camera taken away and if seen taking photos of anything anywhere again are to be given the death penalty.

    • ingrid September 15, 2012 at 2:08 pm - Reply

      Denis, thanks for the comment and for the passion behind the sentiment. As jaded as I’ve become over the years, I still harbor that frustrated idealist — the one who believes that education and awareness separate the ethical from the unethical. But, as we all know, there are those who will defend and engage in the behavior regardless. I wish there were harsher repercussions for all wildlife harassment. Actually, I wish we didn’t even need penalties, that human nature wasn’t what it is.

  7. Sally January 11, 2013 at 7:53 pm - Reply

    Hello Ingrid, I cannot believe what I have seen on the video!!!! I love taking bird photos and also a green bird watcher. As much as I want to take a “WOW” bird picture, I also want to respect the bird’s privacy as well. That guy in the video doesn’t know that he has put the shame and bad names on all the bird photographer as well as he is damaging the nature……the snowies get distress and will not come back again for the coming year!!!! 🙁

  8. Kevin J Railsback September 29, 2014 at 7:01 am - Reply

    It’s sad to see things like this because it paints photographers and filmmakers in a bad light.

    What usually happens in situations like this is that the authorities finally put new rules in p,ace that punish the ethical people and the people that created the situation in the first place will still feel that rules or ethics don’t apply to them.

    I’m so tired of hearing “fill the frame” when photographers or filmmakers give advice to up and coming artists. You can go to a zoo and fill the frame. Me, I like filming an animal in its environment so I usually tend to hang back anyway.

    If an animal approaches, I get a better shot than if I went charging out in the field running after an animal. It comes to me on its own terms because it’s comfortable. If not, I let it live it’s life in peace and don’t interfere.

    I’ve heard so many horror stories. It’s sad that so many think the rules of ethics don’t apply to them.

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