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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 photographs.

Rehabilitated 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 animal.

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 websites:
Profotos - Les Voorhis

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