Don’t do it for the ’gram: why wildlife photography can be dangerous

photo collage of a bear roaring while a man stands in front of him and takes a picture, wildlife photography Photo collage by Taylor Kristan/Unsplash.com

In the second episode of the Cottage Life Podcast Season 3, Michelle chats with Erin Ryan, a biologist and wild animal welfare specialist at the British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, about the potential threat of irresponsible wildlife photography practices. Listen here or visit cottagelife.com for access to all of the episodes.

In the spring of 2019, Cheryl Feldstein was stuck in traffic along Highway 16, leading into Jasper National Park in Alberta. A male elk was standing at the side of the road. Cars pulled over, helter-skelter, while tourists clamoured to get an up-close photo with the beast. Too up-close, in many cases. This was a scene she’d witnessed before. As the former executive director for a wildlife rehabilitation facility, Feldstein has worked alongside community partners and the media to educate the public on the dangers of close-up photography—both for the animal and the human. It was discouraging to see that so many hadn’t received the message. 

One of the worst parts, she says, is knowing that often the people taking these photos love wildlife as much as she does. “I am sure we would be hard-pressed to find a single person doing this who wants to hurt an animal,” says Feldstein. 

The education that Feldstein and others are doing is important now more than ever. A survey conducted by the Nature Conservancy of Canada at the beginning of 2021 showed that an increasing number of individuals, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, are spending more time outside, and they have an increased desire to preserve and connect with nature.

What’s the big deal? 

Taking and sharing photos of wildlife is one way that people can forge that connection. And the fact that everyone has a cell phone at the ready changes the game. Now, wildlife photography isn’t just the purview of professionals. Natalie Robertson, a member of the North American Nature Photography Association Ethics Committee, has spent seven years taking pictures of animals in their habitat as a part-time professional photographer. She knows the risks associated with her work, but for many people, a split-second decision to snap a photo close to wildlife can have grim consequences. Any wild animal, no matter how docile it appears, can be unpredictable and can seriously harm a person. 

“You should never underestimate the fear reaction in these animals,” says Hope Swinimer, a wildlife rehabilitator and the star of Hope for Wildlife on the Cottage Life channel. “They do not want to be near you. They will try to escape.” Some animals may display warning signs—birds will puff up their feathers, or an elk might stomp its hooves. “When an animal tries to make itself bigger, that’s often an indicator that it is fearful and stressed,” she adds. “You may want to see how they’re exhibiting the behaviour, but they want you to back off and leave.” And some people are finding out the hard way—in 2020, a woman in Yellowstone National Park was gored by a bison after she came within three metres of the animal to take its photo. “Some species will feel that their only choice is to fight, others may take off,” says Swinimer.“There’s very few instances where turning your back on a wild animal is a good thing.”

Robertson knows some people will go to extensive lengths to get a good photo. She’s heard of photographers baiting animals, and she’s witnessed people trampling vegetation to get a better shot. Most of the time, these interactions end up being far more deadly for the animals. 

“By being in their territory, we pull them away from hunting, mating, or nesting,” says Swinimer. “It’s like if you were going through your work day, and the phone rang 30 times—you wouldn’t get your work done.” Aside from disrupting the tasks they need to do to survive, feeding wild animals or veering off trails into their habitat can have additional consequences. “Think of a walk in the woods as entering a mini biosphere,” she says. “There’s thousands of living things. You could disrupt the food supply or step on a nest or an underground habitat without knowing it. Every bit of intrusion can have a negative impact on the health of that particular little environment.”

Even less overtly bad behaviour can cause problems. “You might walk past a fox with their babies, stop to take a few pictures, and think nothing of it,” says Swinimer, “but when you leave, that fox may move those pups to another location because it felt threatened in that spot.” That’s a lot of work, energy, and disruption to the foxes’ life. On the East Coast, snowy owls that arrive when winter starts are emaciated, tired, and dehydrated from their journey. By approaching the bird for a photo or to look at it, it will expel its last bit of energy to flee from you, which could be the difference between life and death for that bird. On rare occasions, animals may even leave their family unit out of fear. Harbour seals have been known to abandon their young after seeing a person approach a pup, says Swinimer. And that still may not be the worst-case scenario. Wildlife can suffer from something called “capture myopathy.” Stress or fear can cause an animal to not get enough oxygen, which forces it to use energy stored in its muscles. This leads to a build-up of lactic acid that can go into the bloodstream and cause death instantly, or even weeks after an interaction. “We have to remind ourselves that we’re really big, and these animals are fearful for their lives,” says Swinimer.

There’s another risk of frequently interacting with wildlife—habituation over time. By coming closer to humans, an animal may be injured or killed by off-leash dogs or hit by cars. Many habituated animals, such as bears that come too close to people, are euthanized in order to prevent dangerous interactions.  “I do believe that certain wildlife are more capable of handling interaction,” says Swinimer. “I can walk by ducks, geese, and gulls, and I’m not stressing them. Some foxes are even used to people if they live around the city.” But what’s true for one animal may not be true for another: a city raccoon may react differently to you than a country raccoon. And even though you might be okay seeing them on your property, your neighbour may not be. That “never ends well for the wild animals,” says Swinimer. 

Why are we so drawn to animals?

The reason we find wildlife so compelling may be subconscious. An article in the Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism published in 2017 revealed that nature enthusiasts report having the most memorable experiences when they see large and rare species in close proximity in their natural environment. It’s an emotional pull that sometimes overrides common sense. 

Beyond seeing animals in the wild, posting photos on social media has added another layer. In her research examining the psychology behind wildlife close-ups, Feldstein realized that people tend to take photos not just to connect with wildlife but to connect with each other. Her ideas correspond with findings published in Caitlin Evans’ Colorado State University PhD dissertation. Of 599 college students surveyed, a small portion were likely to post risky wildlife photos if their peers had liked similar pictures in the past. 

Educating the public about the dangers of such photos still plays a big role in getting the point across. And it can be done succinctly—one of Yellowstone National Park’s slogans is “Give them room, use your zoom.” 

But it’s not just ignorance, says Feldstein. People might see the dangers but still really want those photos. “Being close to wild animals, you get overwhelmed with emotions, and you’re in a state of wonderment. It is almost like you get the spark of a kid in you.” 

Where do we go from here?

Feldstein believes that parks and other areas can leverage social reinforcement through signage and other materials—though she admits it’s tricky. They need to provide clear information encouraging best practices without shaming people. “You don’t want to directly tell people they’re being jerks,” says Feldstein. But at the same time, she says, you want them to think about the effects of their behaviour. 

Sara Dubois, the chief scientific officer for the B.C. SPCA and a University of British Columbia adjunct professor in applied biology, agrees that beyond keeping a safe distance from wildlife, individuals can influence others on social media to only photograph using a zoom lens. 

“The longer the lens, the more you can give an animal space,” says Natalie Roberston. Phone cameras these days are good enough that you can zoom in, especially if you rest it on something stationary. Dubois also encourages people to share information about the dangers of habituation and stick to portraying wild animals in their natural habitats. 

“I do think it’s a combination. I think that people need social media feedback to tell them it’s wrong. But very few people will call out their friends and say: ‘Hey dude, that’s a bad idea,’ ” says Dubois. Some platforms, such as Instagram, are helping get the message out. “If a social media platform or a contest’s rules don’t let you upload the photo, maybe that’s a lesson learned.” (See “Social Media Takes a Stand,” below.)

Dubois also thinks that professional photographers and photo contests should emphasize the amount of space between themselves and the photo subject. “Often, it looks really close, but in fact, the image was taken with this type of lens or camera from this distance,” says Dubois. The  B.C. SPCA’s photo contest also bans photographers from baiting animals, tracking them, or posing with them. 

All of our experts agree that no photo is ever worth disrupting an animal or putting yourself in danger. “We, as photographers, whether professional or amateur, have the responsibility to respect wildlife,” says Robertson, “and we must put their welfare ahead of a photograph.” 

Caroline Barlott is a freelance writer from Edmonton, Alta. Her work has appeared in publications such as Discover, Canadian Geographic, and Edify.

Social media takes a stand

Instagram began discouraging irresponsible wildlife photography in 2017 after World Animal Protection pointed out that there had been a 292 per cent increase in users posting wildlife selfies on the platform since 2014. Now, if someone searches for or clicks on a hashtag like #wildlifeselfiea pop-up message in part says: “You are searching for a hashtag that may be associated with posts that encourage harmful behaviour to animals or the environment.” The platform also includes a page with more information about the importance of respecting nature and wild animals. World Animal Protection also has a “Wildlife Selfie Code” on their website, which helps direct people on when it’s safe to snap a photo.

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