Wildlife photography is a healthy hobby (or career) and is a great way to educate and excite people about the natural world from a safe distance, especially if they never intend to experience a day in the field themselves. The goal is always conservation, and how else do we expect non nature people to want to conserve it if they know nothing about it? That's where wildlife photographers come in. Providing breathtaking images of African and Asian mammals, birds from Costa Rica, or Marine Iguanas from the Galapagos Islands give people an experience they may never have in their lifetime. However, many images we see on people's social media sites were obtained by compromising the very thing we want to encourage people to protect, the animals.
Naturalists and protecters of wildlife (and native plants), have a responsibility to put the well being of the animals and plants we photograph before our desire to get "the money shot." National Geographic published a wonderful article on the subject, and it's truly on point if you've ever witnessed questionable photography ethics. Comment below if you have a story. A few of ours include: witnessing photographers flush birds from their rookeries to get stunning flight photos; watching photographers close in on stressed out snowy owls that have just arrived after an epic migration from the Arctic and are hungry and hypothermic; and knowing some who bait wildlife to get that perfect trail cam photo or video. These photographers are practicing poor ethical behavior. You won't lose Instagram followers if you practice ethical photography, you may even gain a few! According to National Geographic, you are crossing the line if you do not follow the guidelines outlined by their own photographers, which are:
1. Do no harm. This means do not alter habitat (cut branches or clear areas to get a better shot). Do not try and engage an animal to get the photo. Birds are naturally curious and will investigate YOU as well as look into your lens when they hear the shutter click, but if you notice an animal is showing signs of stress that's when you back off and remove yourself from their home. Be even more respectful during breeding and nesting season. This time is critical to animals, and being a distraction or threat can impact their ability to successfully breed.
2. Keep it wild. Feeding animals and getting them used to humans is almost always a death sentence for wild animals. This is where baiting for photos or feeding animals from your vehicle at parks applies. Yellowstone National Park even states that "a fed animal is a dead animal." Enough said. An exception to this rule is obviously bird feeders. However, it is the responsibility of a homeowner to always keep their feeders clean, and the food free from mold and mites to keep birds healthy.
3. Know the laws. Some laws have minimum distances that must be maintained from wildlife. Know the laws of the state and of the park you are visiting before going near wildlife. Using drones is almost always regulated near wildlife areas, so always check before bringing your drone along. National parks began prohibiting the use of drones by visitors in 2014. Some state parks still allow them, but the law varies from state to state.
4. Consider the captive. Avoid game farms where animals are kept in small enclosures or areas for the sole purpose of photography. Plan that trip to go see and photograph animals in their natural habitat. If you see them in the wild you know they are living their best life and not forced into a situation they had no control over. Never support zoos that have questionable practices or mistreat animals. Photographing animals for education that are being rehabilitated or are not able to be released back into the wild due to injury or nuisance issues doesn't cross that ethical line, which is a perfect segue into the last item below.
5. Caption with honesty. Be totally transparent about how your photo was made. If there is a back story, then tell it. If you took the image at a game farm, fess up. If you took the image at a zoo, tell your readers that as well. Telling your readers or Instagram followers how you took the shot and why you chose that particular place and technique will help you keep your ethics in check.
Wildlife photography ethics are tricky in some cases, but if you let your conscience be your guide and think about the time of year, watch for signs of stress that your presence may be causing and carefully consider where and how you are photographing an animal, you'll be fine and you will still get that money shot while sleeping a little better at night!
Above are images of a species of turtle, an aquatic aquarium plant, an everyday goldfish (photo courtesy of Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper) that were, and continue to be, released into the wild. These species are now considered invasive and have become serious environmental threats to the waterbodies they inhabit. Sadly, all of these careless releases and the damage they have caused could easily have been avoided.
The first is a red-eared slider. This invasive freshwater turtle now has a place on the world's top 100 worst invasive species list. Even though it is native to the Mississippi River Basin, it becomes a nuisance outside of its home range. It is now found in ponds, lakes, rivers, streams and manmade ditches in many states where it outcompetes native turtles for food, nesting habitat and basking sites. This invasion could have been avoided if pet owners had donated their unwanted sliders to someone willing to take care of them or surrendered them to the pet store where they were originally purchased. Unfortunately, red-eared slider sales surged because of a trend (which is never a good thing, think bunnies at Easter) when they became a must-have pet in the 80s and 90s due to the popular Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Franchise. The original comic book turtles were all red-eared sliders. This led to many purchases and subsequently many releases of these turtles.
The second is Brazilian elodea, a familiar plant purchased for many aquariums because it is considered a good oxygenator. In its native home of Brazil, this plant grows normally since it is obviously kept in check, however, when dumped into a lake or pond in North America, it becomes incredibly invasive. Just a single, small fragment can form a new plant and ultimately take over an entire waterbody. It can outcompete local species and form dense mats, as seen above, making it impossible for other plant species to grow and difficult for fish to find food. Brazilian elodea is spread between waterbodies mainly by boat propellers and fishing gear. Never flush plants down the toilet, as they can be released via city sewer systems, always compost them far from a waterbody.
The third is a typical goldfish from east Asia that you buy at a pet store or win at a carnival. When kept in a tank, goldfish, which are part of the carp family, will usually stay around two inches long. When released into the wild they can grow up to 15 inches since they are typically limited by their container size and quality of water they are living in. Ponds and lakes are very big containers with better water quality than a non oxygenated fishbowl. Most recently, a 14 inch goldfish was reported in the Niagara River and posted by Niagara Waterkeeper. Flushing a two inch goldfish may seem harmless, but if you live in an area with a public sewer then you run the risk of causing serious environmental damage by releasing that fish. When Gill from Finding Nemo said, "All drains lead to the ocean, kid," he wasn't too far off!
Goldfish, and other non native aquarium fish, outcompete native species, displacing them and removing vital food sources for other animals in a waterbody. They breed quickly and are very difficult to manage once established. Scientists are now estimating that there are tens of millions of goldfish in the Great Lakes.
Goldfish will be included in the next update of Lakes SOS.
Please help preserve our natural communities by surrendering your fish or turtle to a pet store and composting any unwanted aquarium plants.