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Love Hurts- Wildlife

Updated: Mar 30

Have you ever had to deal with a small child's love for a puppy or kitten? The struggle is keeping them from hugging the baby animal so tight that it injures the thing they love most. After watching friends introduce a tiny adopted puppy to their toddlers and extracting Nugget from their arms multiple times throughout the day because they were hugging the poor thing until it whimpered for help, it reminded me of multiple recent experiences with fellow wildlife enthusiasts and photographers.

Frozen in place, this group's guide attempted to herd the photographers into their bus long before the coyote got close enough to be impacted by their presence. The photographers would not budge, so he stopped to consider the safest route around the paparazzi.

Can we love something too much? Just as in any loving relationship, you can love someone/something to the moon and back- but to have a mutual, healthy, lasting relationship requires respect, communication, and boundaries along with that love. I have been there, I know what it is like to want that fabulous, up close, and personal photographs of wildlife. But, the secret to the best shots is that they are of times when nature chooses to give you those intimate opportunities. I have been lucky to spend time in several wilderness spots recently- and so have many others. Everyone is a photographer and wants "the shot" to be posted on social media. The masses are behaving like nature paparazzi. And as a result, we are seeing changes in the topography, flora, fauna, and animal behaviors. Like many movie stars feel pushed to the brink, I imagine that wildlife feels the same. Movie stars and wildlife have often chosen to flee when they are stalked. However, when animals can't escape, they fight, which negatively impacts all.

Gotta get the shot!

If you are new to wildlife photography, or if you are on a trip to an area with wildlife and happen to have your phone, iPad, or camera when wildlife approaches, be respectful and follow the established ethics and practices of many park rangers, biologists, ecologists, and nature photographers. In his 1997 article The Problem with Wildlife Photography, Bill McKibben wrote, “Without Kodak, there’d be no Endangered Species Act.” While viewed by many as controversial, McKibben’s point has gained traction over recent years. Many Instagram accounts display stories of overenthusiastic shutterbugs who endanger themselves—or worse yet, harm their intended animal subjects—while snapping selfies in the wild or trying to capture a prize-winning close-up (e.g., #Bisonselfie). Fueled by the power of powerful modern technology and the rewards of social media networks, the interface between dwindling wildlife faced with an influx of a rapidly growing human population has reached a precarious imbalance. More people die from selfies than from shark attacks each year, and the numbers have increased radically since the end of the pandemic. When you take risks with wildlife, you not only endanger yourself and the people around you- but unknowingly, that shot can also result in the euthanization of the animal(s) involved. Most experienced nature photographers have stories of witnessing dangerous human/animal encounters.

My personal experiences in the last year:

  • A father posing his teenage daughter within 4 feet of a bison in Yellowstone for a Christmas card photo

  • Masses of tourists driving to Hudson Bay to see polar bears, leaping out of their cars and running towards the bears, only to be stopped by guides who were concerned about the safety of the tourists and the bears (the guides had never seen anything like it)

  • 25+ tourists surrounded a bull moose with phones and pads and closed in, despite his apparent stress, and he eventually ran for a break in the ring of people, narrowly missing running over one of his admirers.

  • A woman walked up to within 3 feet of a resting red fox to take pictures, and then she told her husband, "It is as tame as the ones at home- come on, Honey- come get your shot!". Whereby I approached them and asked them to join me at the regulated distance. I probably appeared rude as I quoted the park's wildlife distance regulations and tried to explain that what they were doing was potentially harming the fox- or at least making her uncomfortable- which could result in disaster for all.

If you love wildlife and want to capture great memories:

  • Study the wildlife in the area that you are visiting. There are rules regarding safe distances between you and the animals you will hopefully see on your visit. These rules are designed to keep people and animals safe.

  • When at all possible, stay on designated paths or roads to view the animals. The trampling and human paths that we have created following animals take ages to recover. This damages grass and shrubbery and alters water runoff and the general ecosystems in the areas we are walking in.

  • Go with a guide or a tour. I have had some of the BEST experiences of my life with knowledgeable guides who not only know the rules and have my safety in mind- but also have incredible insight into how to find wildlife AND give you great opportunities- safely.

The rewards of being an ethical/respectful nature photographer are great. Wildlife will respond to your love and respect with unique interactions. I have enjoyed bears, moose, foxes, and other animals choosing to sleep right next to me. It is not great for photography, but it is the highest compliment in my book when an animal trusts me enough that they choose to nap- and I find those times among some of my favorite memories and experiences in the wild.

Go out, find and enjoy nature with love and respect, and see what rewards will come your way!

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