Wildlife fauxtography

by Ted Williams

Ever wonder how photographers get those stunning action shots of wildlife?  Cougars, lynxes, lions, tigers, leopards, bears, wolves, foxes, wolverines, leaping and snarling, fur coifed, every whisker in focus?  If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

Nature fakery in photography is older than flash powder, but no one goosed it along more than Walt Disney.  In The Living Desert, footage of scorpions is run forward and backward to make it appear that they’re square dancing to appropriate music.  In White Wilderness, the polar bear cub tumbling down a rock-strewn mountain was thrown over the side.  And believing the wives’ tale that lemmings commit mass suicide, Disney paid kids to catch hundreds in Churchill, Manitoba, then transported them to Calgary, Alberta, (where lemmings don’t naturally exist) and mechanically launched them off a high cliff into the Bow River, identified as "the sea."

Marlin Perkins, host of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, and Marty Stouffer, host of the Public Broadcasting Service’s Wild America, were as bad or worse.  Perkins would throw tame animals into rivers, even over waterfalls, so sidekicks could "rescue" them; and Stouffer would stage ridiculous daylight battles between nocturnal species unlikely to interact at any hour.

Apologists for these early producers might have more credibility if the films weren’t still being hawked in DVD and aired on TV.

Modern nature fakery is more subtle. Game farms across the nation, but mostly in the West, truck animals to distant, scenic locations where they perform for "wildlife photographers."  Regulations are lax, and humane treatment lacking.  Minnesota Wildlife Connection sold its black bear, Cubby, for $4,650 to country music crooner Troy Gentry, who then illegally "hunted" and killed him in his pen. State records show that a company calling itself Animals of Montana euthanized eight wolves in 2007 because they were "dangerous" -- i.e., wolflike.

Until losing its license last year, Animals of Montana was patronized by many of the nation’s most prominent wildlife photographers and such notable filmmakers as the BBC, National Geographic, Dave & Di Douglas Imax producers, Turner Original Productions and Animal Planet.  According to court documents, owner Troy Hyde was convicted of illegal wildlife trafficking.

"Our grizzlies love to perform [and] will amaze you by running towards the camera, standing on command, snarling viciously or posing cute," proclaims Animals of Montana’s still-active Web site.

On calendars, posters and magazine pages, wildlife fauxtography proliferates like vacationers’ junk mail.  Many of the depicted species are endangered, but why would the public be concerned about that since it keeps encountering these animals at the bookstore, library, newsstand, subways, backs of buses and on TV?  A snow leopard residing at the Triple D game farm in Kalispell, Mont., was a photographic cliché long before 2008, when an image of it won first place in the "nature" category of the National Geographic’s International Photography Contest.

Magazines like Outdoor Photographer should be leading the way.  Instead, it sells advertising space to game farms and, in its November 2009 issue, ran a photo of what it captioned a "rural Montana" wolf that "suddenly strayed from the pack" to sniff the photographer’s camera and tripod -- something no wild Montana wolf would dream of doing.  When I checked with the photographer, I learned there was no "pack" and that he’d rented the wolf in greater Bozeman -- at Animals of Montana.

Few calendar publishers or general-interest magazines seem to care how or where wildlife photos are made. Hook-and-bullet publications snap up images of captive fish leaping (to escape battery acid), or captive deer top-heavy with freakishly large antlers produced by drugs, diet supplements and selective breeding.

Still, there is minor progress.  Three of the most respected nature magazines -- Audubon, National Geographic, and National Wildlife -- no longer knowingly accept game-farm shots.  But accurate identification is hard because some photographers and most photo-stock houses don’t label game-farm images, aware that disclosure might discourage purchase.

A new voice for honesty in wildlife photojournalism is the League of Conservation Photographers, whose director, Cristina Mittermeier, finds game farms "sickening."  Equally offended are genuine wildlife photographers such as Tom Carlisle, who "cringes" when he sees "endangered species portrayed as cute, cuddly and approachable in non-habitat," and Tom Mangelsen, who says he is repulsed by the "unimaginable stress" to game-farm animals from heat, boredom, noise and odors when their cages are stacked on top of each other.

Chastened by these and other dissenters, the North American Nature Photography Association voted on Feb. 16, 2010, to cease its longtime practice of running ads for game farms, selling game farms its membership list and distributing their promo. It’s a good move.

Ted Williams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes the Incite column for Audubon magazine.

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