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!