A place where wildlife photography's not so wild

Posted: Thursday, January 24, 2002

SANDSTONE, Minn. (AP) -- Standing in the kitchen of his spacious log home on the scenic Kettle River, Lee Greenly leafs through a book about Minnesota's wild wolves.

Stunning images fill the pages. On the cover, an alpha male howls in a frozen forest. Inside, a male snarls viciously, yellow eyes menacing. A sociable pack of four trots through a pebbled stream; another sits alone on a rocky outcrop, silhouetted by the setting sun.

Greenly studies the book carefully, naming each animal as he turns the pages.

That's Wolfie on the cover, said Greenly. Cam's the one snarling; he's also in the stream with Dakota, Hershey and Cocoa. Moonshine's on the ledge.

He recognizes these Minnesota wolves?

''Yeah,'' said Greenly. ''I live with them.''

These wolves and a whole lot of other creatures most people would think were wild. Animals such as the graceful cougar in the wildlife magazine, or the playful fox kits on Minnesota postcards, or Cubby, a lumbering bear who's shown up on television nature shows. But those wild-looking images and thousands like them were shot just outside Greenly's front door using trained, captive animals.

Greenly and his family own the Minnesota Wildlife Connection. The 90-acre game farm draws professional and amateur photographers from around the world to photograph nearly 200 animals in its rugged northwoods setting.

Most of the photographers think the $400 a day fee is a bargain compared to the time, expense and unpredictability they'd spend tracking these elusive predators in the wild. Sessions with smaller animals such as raccoons, porcupines or skunks cost less. If you want to add a bull elk carcass for those wolves to snarl over, it's a little extra, but it can be arranged.

Greenly aims to please.

''If you want a cougar in a tree, we put a cougar in the tree,'' he said. ''If you want a wolf running in the river, we put a wolf in the river.''

Greenly must be doing something right -- more than 90 percent of the photographers who shoot there once return for more within two years. Fall, winter and spring are exceptionally busy. The family took off 4th of July this year, but otherwise have had few days without clients this year.

''I almost booked Christmas, but my wife drew the line,'' said Greenly.

Shooting wildlife photos on a game farm is a controversial topic among nature photographers. Some feel such photos should only be shot in the wild. Others, such as Rick Hobbs, a professional photographer from Burnsville, think game farms are a necessary resource.

Though Hobbs does much of his nature work in the wild, he's been leading photography workshops and shooting predator species at Minnesota Wildlife Connection for the past three years.

''Wolves can hear you and smell you over a mile away,'' said Hobbs. ''You're never going to sneak up on them. I don't have years and years to chase these animals through the brush, not when I can get what I need in natural settings in three days.''

Hobbs researches the animals to be certain the images he makes are representative of the species. Controlled or not, most of the animals' behavior is instinctive, he said. He labels his work so that his clients know the photos were taken under controlled conditions.

For many who know the animals best, use of such photography is a legitimate means to educate the public and often the only way to get photos of specific behavior of these naturally wary predators. Noted wolf researcher L. David Mech often uses such images in his scientific books, but informs readers how the images were made.

''There's nothing wrong with doing it,'' said Mech. ''What's wrong is portraying it as something else.''

Greenly, 41, grew up in Sandstone. As a child, he brought home abandoned baby squirrels, rabbits and birds and nursed them to health. Now his wife Sandy and their three children play critical roles in the business, sharing their home with as many as 60 baby animals each spring, imprinting them on people and teaching them how to behave.

More than 90 percent of the Greenly's animals are born and raised on their farm, raised by hand through their infancy in their concrete-floored kitchen. Greenly credits his family for the good-natured social behavior of the animals. Neither family nor clients have suffered more than a scratch from any of the animals, he said. Nor have they ever lost any animals, with the exception of weasels, who routinely escape and disappear. Others, such as Wolfie, the alpha wolf, and Buddy, an Arctic fox, have tired of working after a few hours on location and returned home alone to wait for dinner.

Once they're adults, the animals move to spacious outdoor pens and cages behind the Greenly's home. They're regularly checked by veterinarians; the farm has all the permits and licenses required to keep wild animals.

''We're licensed, inspected, and approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Humane Society, DNR, you name it. We cover all the bases,'' said Greenly. ''They have to be healthy. No one wants to photograph some matted, mangy animal.''

No matter the size of the animal, training is similar. When out on a shoot, the animals are controlled with treats and voice commands, but otherwise left to follow their natural instincts. Greenly uses his mouth extensively during training; he'll bite a fox, wolf or even a bear on the snout if it misbehaves. It's the same way dominance is asserted in the wild, he said. Every animal is handled daily to so the animals are clear that humans are in charge.

''It's important in this job to be alpha,'' said Greenly. ''Especially if you want to keep your fingers and your nose.''


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