Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Cancer Among Us

“Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and aesthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to perserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” (Aldo Leopold)

Abbey at 14
Abbey at 14
I'm struggling to deal with the slow-motion death of our dignified old dog, "Abbey." Bone cancer is slowly stealing our 14-yr-old family member. This path we're on crosses unfamiliar ground and leaves me feeling hopelessly lost, but we refuse to let Abbey make the journey alone. We spoil her when we can, cry when we must.

Even the pain meds are hard on Abbey. My wife takes the day shifts. I take the nights, staying awake as late as possible before cat-napping on the couch or on the floor next to Abbey. It’s draining on so many levels, but I feel lucky to be able to give her as much time as she needs from me. The only other benefit to my family duty is that I find myself with time to read, late at night.

But these restless nights can also leave me cranky and exhausted and short on patience – especially when I read still more reports on the demise of ethics in wildlife photography.

Last night I finally picked up “In the Presence of Grizzlies,” (2009) from my neglected stack of unread books. The authors, Doug and Andrea Peacock, are real-life heroes in the North American conservation community – especially as champions of wild and free-ranging grizzly bears. Their book is revealing things good and bad that I didn't necessarily know about some of the photographers, bear biologists and university professors that I've crossed paths with at one time or another.

Doug's a Vietnam vet with a certified 100% disability, according to the Veterans Administration. He is also the most intriguing person I’ve ever met. Doug owns one of my photos showing the full moon behind Huckleberry fire lookout, in Glacier National Park, where he spent several summers, and where he wrote parts of his first book, the life-changing “Grizzly Years.”

Andrea is a professional writer and editor – and one hellava’ woman to keep her bear-of-a-husband on a more-or-less straight and legal path. She previously authored an investigative book and numerous magazine articles, and she recently opened “Elk River Books” one block off the main drag in windy Livingston, Montana. I bought a book from her used bookstore that I didn’t need, in an attempt to show my support.

In the Presence of Grizzlies
by Doug and Andrea PeacockDoug and Andrea co-authored “In the Presence of Grizzlies,” and Andrea's first two chapters are titled, “Photographers,” and “Bear Keepers.” Reading through her investigative reporting – as evening turns to morning – the  book cuts me to the bone on the slow death of ethical wildlife photography. In much the same way that our dear Abbey is slowly fading away, respectable wildlife photography is dying from the cancer of unethical photographers.

Sadly, I can't cure either disease. All I have to offer is resistance.

Chapter two examines a steady erosion of the ethics that wildlife photographers once used to police their own ranks. A photographer I compete with at art shows denies using grain and birdseed to bait bears into his yard on the wild edge of Glacier Park, in spite of evidence to the contrary. But National Wildlife magazine rewards this illegal baiting by purchasing his photo of a momma grizzly and her cub climbing the photographer's bird feeder. Later, the bear cub is illegally poached nearby, his belly full of birdseed.

Worse yet for the animals involved, a Bozeman-based photographer builds a highly successful business (think, covers of most every national magazine related to wildlife or hunting) based almost entirely on images of game farm animals. These animals live in cages and are forced to “perform” for the paying camera. Five hundred dollars per hour for grizzlies, $200/hr for black bears, $150/hr for smaller species. So-called photo safaris with these slave models run thousands of dollars.

Game farm operators charge even more – and these photographers pay it – for baby animals, like lion kittens and bear cubs. When these kittens and cubs grow bigger, less cute, and harder to handle, they are typically euthanized. Sometimes, they're “hunted” in a pen for a price. Animals that don’t work out (i.e. – won’t perform or don’t earn enough cash) get euthanized for their skins. Foxes, wolves, mountain lions, bears.

Caged for unethical photographers, killed for cash.

These photographers argue that their images provide wildlife education. They claim that it isn’t possible (at least, not in a financially-feasible time frame) to get the clean, close-up photos that magazine editors – and the people who purchase magazines – have come to expect and demand. If they don’t photograph caged animals to satisfy the editors, they argue, the next guy will, and the editors will just call the next guy next time. For them, faked, posed animal photography is the easiest way they know to make sellable images in a highly competitive field. They go on to suggest that animals in national parks are habituated anyway, not really wild, and that all of the photographers who avoid game farms are “elitists.”

Unfortunately, some of their arguments hold a little water. Some park animals are habituated - as are many magazine readers. The buying public, and the editors who supply them, want pretty (or scary) close-ups, and perfect-looking wildlife models. The public is uninformed or, worse yet, uninterested in the messy ethics behind their pleasure.

Before these chapters get too depressing, the writers also give voice to some of the ethical stalwarts who refuse to turn on their wild subjects. Yellowstone's Tom Murphy, photojournalist Bill Campbell, and the late Michio Hoshino. World-class wildlife photographers like Tom Mangelsen, who argues passionately against game farms. It's a much-needed balance and welcome relief to read about some of the successful photographers who refuse to pimp wild animals.

The third chapter called “Bear Keepers” ends with the conclusion that, the people who are involved with grizzlies are either infatuated with bears, or infatuated with money – but not both. I would expand this to say that, in my humble opinion, there are ethical wildlife photographers and there are animal pimps with cameras. And the pimps are a cancer that is killing the trust that people used to have in our profession. Unfortunately, we are all tainted by the cancer among us.

Even if it means turning to a different profession, I will not betray the animals – wild or domestic. I owe them that much, and a hellava’ lot more. We all do. Please, before they're all gone, support those who support wildlife conservation and ethical photography.


  1. Depressing but an informative post! Thanks for sharing. It is very sad that this sort of thing still happens.

  2. Try as I did, I couldn't keep dry eyes while reading this post, for Abbey, you and Tracy and of course the wild animals taken advantage of by the so called professional photographers you write about. I truly am saddened.