Captive animals raise photo questions

Posted: Friday, April 07, 2000

KALISPELL, Mont. -- The photograph is stunning.

A young mountain lion is crouched on a fresh layer of snow near Glacier National Park, ready to spring on its prey. Backlighting from the late-afternoon sun accentuates the wild animal's flawless fur.

A wildlife photographer might have spent hours waiting for the seemingly perfect photo op. But not this time.

The mountain lion in this case is Ginger, a yearling cougar housed at Wild Eyes Photo Adventures north of Columbia Falls. The ''prey'' she was ready to attack was an empty orange-juice jug tied to a rope, a playtime prop used to coax the animal into different positions.

The growing use of captive wildlife in the outdoor photography market has been driven by economics and availability to a great extent.

Why spend thousands of dollars to sit in the wild for days, without a guarantee of a finished product, questioned Jakob Luke, the new owner of Wild Eyes. It's easier and often cheaper in the long run for professionals to rent an animal, often on an hourly basis, at a wildlife farm.

''We have cost control and risk control,'' Luke said matter-of-factly.

It's a trend that irks the purists, though, those who refuse to step foot in a captive animal environment, no matter how lucrative the results.

And amid it all, the public is largely oblivious.

Don Jones, a wildlife photographer from Troy who has written about the issue for Bugle magazine, said he believes the public would and should be appalled that most of the picture-perfect photographs that illustrate calendars, postcards or wall hangings are scenes created in a captive environment.

''They'd be disgusted, or at least disappointed,'' he said.

Jones makes his living photographing wildlife without assistance from game farms. He refuses to photograph any wild animal that's kept in a controlled environment.

''Wildlife in captivity, that's an oxymoron,'' he said.

Jones does, however, photograph habituated animals, like elk near Jasper National Park that don't mind people meandering close by. Or mountain goats in Glacier National Park.

Well-known wildlife photographers Erwin and Peggy Bauer have used game farms like Wild Eyes for many years and see advantages.

''We photograph animals that are rare or endangered that would be difficult to impossible to get on film in any other way,'' Peggy Bauer said. ''By these photos others can see and appreciate creatures they may not have been exposed to in the past.''

Wolves are a good example, she said. She said photographs of wolves helped create public support for reintroduction programs like the one in Yellowstone National Park.

The Bauers, like many professional photographers, shoot both wild and captive animals. They're shooting in the wild in India right now.

''No animal models there,'' Peggy said. ''And none in Brazil, where we will be in May.''

Luke said the preservation of endangered species is an argument for wildlife farms. The two white tigers he's getting this year may have been extinct by now if they hadn't been sheltered in captivity. The last one killed in the wild was in 1957.

Captive wildlife is well cared for, he added.

''These animals have it better than any other in the wild,'' Luke said. ''They get special blends of food. We spend a lot of time with them.''

Photographer Tom Ulrich, who lives just a mile away from Wild Eyes, has worked on both sides of the fence. He and the late Danny On of Whitefish were among the first wildlife photographers to shoot at Triple D game farm in Kalispell in the mid-1970s.

''I did it, but it's just not the same as being out in the wild,'' Ulrich said.

His business has grown to the point he can choose the assignments he wants, and these days, they're all in the wild.

Ulrich has conducted photography workshops at Wild Eyes, however, and said he has thousands of slides in his collection that are from the game farm. He pointed to elusive animals like the Canadian lynx and mountain lions.

''I've done lynx in the wild, but they're not marketable,'' he said.

Luann Short of Apopka, Fla. said she uses game farms to photograph animals in different seasons.

''I have to travel to the places that truly have a change of seasons, and Wild Eyes affords me that opportunity,'' Short said. ''If I want photos of polar bears, I go to Churchill, Manitoba. If I want wolves, I go to Wild Eyes.''

Magazines are gradually starting to differentiate between captive and wild shots in photo captions, but many still don't, Ulrich said.

In most cases photo editors don't care, Peggy Bauer said.

''But some do, and get answers (from photographers) that may or may not be true,'' she said.

Others, like National Wildlife Federation, will label a photo as ''under controlled conditions'' if it taken in a captive environment, she said.

Jones said editors' willingness to use controlled photos is ruining the essence of nature photography.

Young fox cubs, pictured in a den with flowers blooming all around is not what one would actually see in the wild.

''Fox dens are trampled to death,'' he said, and that makes it difficult to sell ''real'' pictures of fox.

He doesn't like the way animals are posed and provoked, all for the sake of a photograph. He wondered if the public would accept the practice if they knew mountain lions were occasionally ''smacked'' in the shoulder to evoke a snarl. Grizzly bears are posed with butterflies and beehives for a cute effect.

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