The Case for Captive
(by Les Voorhis)
Since the first photographer began making images of the natural
world, the ethics of the photographic process have been under
scrutiny. Just as morality varies in normal society so too does
the ethical standard in nature photography. What falls into the
realm of acceptability for one photographer may be out of the
question for another. While some refuse to alter the scene in
any way, others have no problem trimming the dead leaves from
around an alpine flower. While still others think that trimming
that flower and moving it to a more attractive location is acceptable.
One of the strongest controversies surrounding nature photography
today is the use of captive animals as models. Several articles
have been written about this practice and dismissing the photographers
who use captives as "lazy" and not "true"
wildlife photographers. There is also a trend for photographers
to be resistant to exposing their images as those taken of captive
animals. While in some instances these both may be true, I would
like to make an honest "case for captives".
The first point that must be considered is whether or not photographing
captive animals is even necessary. Lets first consider endangered
and/or sensitive animals such as the Black Footed Ferret or the
shy and secretive Mountain Lion. These animals exist in captivity
for several reasons. First, such as with the Black Footed Ferret,
is to save the animal from extinction. Through captive breeding
programs, biologists have returned Ferrets from near extinction
and even restored them to portions of their former range. Through
this process the animals used for breeding became somewhat acclimated
to humans and therefore a prime candidate as photographers models.
Would it be right in order to obtain photographs of a Black Footed
Ferret to attempt to find one in an area where they have been
reintroduced, with proper guidance and assistance from a trained
biologist maybe. Or would there be less impact on an already sensitive
species to use one of the habituated animals as your photography
model? Some photographers against the use of captives would argue,
"But I am only one person. I am very careful to pay attention
to their behavior and make as little impact as possible."
While one very careful photographer may not have much of an impact,
consider the huge number of nature photographers in the field
in this day of electronic, auto focus cameras and the impact could
be very substantial.
While the opportunities to photograph a Black Footed Ferret are
limited and the areas where they have been re-introduced are closely
guarded, lets look at our other example, the much more common
and not at all endangered, Mountain Lion. Where I live in the
Rocky Mountain West, Mountain Lion sightings are fairly common.
Most of them however, occur at night in car's headlights or on
someone's back porch eating out of the family dog's food bowl.
In over 15 years of hiking and backpacking through prime Mountain
Lion territory, I have only seen three in the wild and none were
in a setting or situation conducive to photography. Had I chosen
to attempt to follow and photograph any of these Lions, I could
have put myself as well as ultimately, the Lion, in danger.
Mountain Lions are large, dangerous carnivores and have in the
past, attacked and killed people. Had I approached too closely
and the animal attacked, it too would ultimately lose its life.
Animals that attack humans are typically destroyed in order to
protect the human population. In that scenario, where should the
blame lie? In my opinion, and definitely depending on the situation,
I would blame the photographer.
This is not to say that given the opportunity, I would not photograph
a wild Mountain Lion or Black Footed Ferret. But, I would do so
with great caution and with safety the primary consideration,
both the subject's and my own. Knowing that a willing and habituated
captive animal was available would definitely keep me from getting
too close and putting myself in danger or endangering the animal.
I would have a difficult time knowing that because of my photographic
intentions harm came to my subject or myself.
Through various circumstances, more common animals such as Mountain
Lions, Bears, Wolves, Eagles, Owls etc., exist in captivity. Many
are there because they wrongly started their lives as people's
pets and were then discarded when the people could no longer care
for them. Others became injured and were rehabilitated but unfortunately
due to their injuries, were not able to be re-released. These
animals make prime photographic subjects and in most situations
the fees paid by the photographers go towards the animals care
and feeding. Animals that are routinely used for educational purposes
also make excellent photo models as well as being available to
teach people about the animal's importance to the environment,
ultimately leading to more public support.
One of the main reasons I use captive animals in my photography
is to reduce the overall impact on sensitive wild populations.
While some animals are naturally habituated because of their proximity
to people, others are much more sensitive and are more easily
disturbed. Deer, Foxes, Raccoons and other animals that routinely
live within urban settings as well as some animals in our national
park and refuge systems are exposed to large numbers of people
and are excellent examples of "wild" animals that are
conducive to low impact photography. It is still important, however,
to pay attention to the animals behavior and body language and
to keep the subjects comfort and welfare paramount in all situations.
Other populations and types of animals are less habituated or
more secretive and therefore if they are to be safely photographed,
a captive becomes the obvious choice. These types of animals include
Lynx, Wolverine, Grizzly, Mountain Lion, Wolf etc. The decision
then becomes where and how to photograph captive animals and which
places provide the best opportunities. As a general rule, animals
used for educational purposes or in the film industry are excellent
choices. These animals are extremely habituated to humans and
in some instances, even trained to perform on command. To some
photographers, these types of animals are not "wild"
enough. While to others, they present the perfect scenario. It
comes down to what is acceptable to you and what you want in your
and abandoned animals are another sector of the captive environment
that can present excellent opportunities. Included here are animals
in wildlife parks and sanctuaries as well as rehabilitation centers.
These animals are more than likely less habituated and therefore
are usually contained inside an enclosure and you are more at
the whim of the animal and must wait and photograph it as it moves
through its environment. This can become much more like photographing
them in the wild with the exception that the animal is contained
within a specific area.
Zoos can also be another wise choice and is often the best bet
for endangered species, especially for those that are found outside
of the U.S. I often go to zoos to practice new photo techniques
as well as for animals that are not otherwise found locally.
Regardless of the situation that you chose to photograph in,
a couple of things is necessary to both keep the images from looking
as if they are taken in a captive environment as well as to ensure
the safety of yourself and the welfare of the animal. First, remember,
that these animals are at some level, still a wild animal. And
even if they don't seem to act wild they are at the very least
much bigger, faster and have sharper teeth and claws than we do.
This point was driven home during a photo shoot at a wildlife
sanctuary where we were photographing a 6 month old Siberian Tiger.
The handler had taken him out of his enclosure and was letting
him run through the woods as we followed behind with our cameras.
He laid down in the shade of a pine tree as we approached and
appeared to be resting. Without warning he suddenly jumped to
his feet and ran toward one of the photographers kneeling in front
of him. Before we could say anything, he jumped on the guy and
playfully bit him in the hand. Unfortunately, a 6 mos. old Siberian
Tiger has a bone crushing bite and he bit completely through the
guy's finger. Although this incident was in no way malicious,
it reminds us the power that even a captive animal possesses.
One of the most important considerations in deciding to photograph
captives is in the selection of the facility that you use. Whether
you have decided to use animals trained for the movie industry
or a rehabilitation facility, the animal must be clean and well
cared for. His enclosure must be clean and large enough to give
him enough room to move around. You want to be careful not to
support a facility that takes poor care of its animals. An easy
way to know if a facility has the animals interests paramount
is to simply look at the animal and note its behaviors. Is it
pacing restlessly and looking somewhat neurotic? Even well cared
for animals that are in cages too small for them can become neurotic
over a period of time. Make sure that the enclosure suits the
Smell is another good indication of the cleanliness of the facility
as well as the pride that the owners take in their animals. Although
any facility with large animals is going to generate a fair amount
of odor, it should be more "barnyard like" and should
not burn your nose or be intolerable. As unsightly as they may
be, concrete floors in the cages are typically the easiest to
clean and the best for the animals overall general health. Make
sure however that the animal is still provided escape cover, shade
and any other "creature comforts" that may be necessary
for that particular species.
After observing the animals and their environment, talk to the
owners and get a feel for their expertise and willingness to work
with both you and the animals. Most of the people that I have
encountered at these facilities dearly love their animals and
it shows just in talking to them. Be very specific with them about
your intentions and what you hope to capture on film. Make sure
that you have in writing what you will get for your money as well
as how many, if any, other photographers will be sharing this
animal and the exact length of time you will have for photography.
Have them tell you what they can do, and are willing to do, with
the animal. Make sure you reach an agreement before any shooting
starts or money is exchanged. Also do not forget to have the owner
of the animal sign a release allowing you to use the photographs
for your intended purpose. If the facility that you are talking
to is not able to provide what you are looking for, move on to
another one. It is unfair to the animal and everyone involved,
trying to do something that is not within the animal's capability
or is unethical.
Finally when the shooting begins treat the animal as if it were
wild and never approach, try to pet, whistle at or generally harass
the animal just because it is a captive. Show respect to the animal
and it, as well as, the owner will have more respect for you.
If shooting with other photographers, be considerate of them and
never move in front of them or otherwise disturb their ability
to make photographs too. This may seem like common sense but for
some reason people seem to leave their manners at home when they
attend these shoots. I lost one of my best mountain lion pictures
from a shoot because another photographer was paying no attention
to what he was doing and stuck his hand right in the middle of
my frame, just as the lion snarled at the handler.
Several of the better known nature photographers also hold seminars
and sponsor captive animal shoots at various locations around
the country. These types of seminars can be excellent choices,
especially for your first captive animal shoot. All of the legwork
has been done for you as well as setting up how many animals you
get to photograph as well as how long you get to spend with them.
Many times these photographers can get package deals and a better
rate because of the larger number of people that they bring to
a facility each year. Combine this with professional expertise
and guidance and these seminars can be a great way to get started.
I will never stop prowling the mountains and prairies looking
for cooperative subjects. But photographing captive animals can
be just as rewarding and exciting as finding them in the wild.
Never lie and try to pass off your captive images as ones taken
in the wild and always show respect for the animal you are photographing
and they will reward you with images that would be impossible
to take in other circumstances.
All text and images are copyright Les Voorhis
About the Author: Les is a
professional nature/wildlife photographer based in Lakewood, CO.
An avid outdoorsman, Les has photographed our nation's back roads
extensively with heavy concentration in the Rocky Mountain west.
He often heads off the beaten path to areas rarely traveled by
others. His affinity for all things wild and unspoiled has allowed
him to find and capture magnificent images on film. From the wilds
of Alaska to the busy roadways of Rocky Mountain National Park,
he has successfully photographed some of the United States' most
prolific and sometimes elusive wildlife. Elk, Mule Deer, Bald
Eagles, and Mountain Goats are favorite subjects. In the silence
of the predawn hours, he forms a magical unspoken bond with his
subject. That magic is then transferred to film. His exceptional
eye for dramatic light is apparent from his majestic mountain
scenes to his delicately detailed macro work. Les offers photography
seminars in the Denver area. He is actively shooting to add to
his extensive stock photography file. Les' images can be seen
regularly in national and regional publications including Rocky
Mountain Game and Fish and Colorado Outdoors, Bugle Magazine and
American Hunter. A selection of his fine art prints is currently
being showcased in Colorado galleries and gift shops.
You can see more of Les's work at the following
- Les Voorhis