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Great Horned Owl (captive)

I am a regular on the forums at Nature Photographer Online Magazine.  It is probably my favorite of all the photography forums I have been a member of over the years since the internet emerged.  It is a friendly place, but also a place populated by many talented and interesting people who also happen to be photographers.  One of the members recently posted a link to Audubon Online Magazine to a thought-provoking article on photographing “captive” wildlife.  The primary thesis was that such photographs have, cumulatively, given people a distorted idea of what nature is really like.  They made the point that many, if not most, of the photos you see these days of “wildlife” are taken at “game ranches” or are made using “posed” wildlife.  They also note that, historically, this is not unique and cite examples from Disney and “Wild Kingdom.”

It struck a chord with me.  I have a nice portfolio of captive birds of prey.  And having stalked and attempted a few similar shots in “in the wild” so to speak, I can see the concern.  My favorite, and perhaps best such image is a Great Horned Owl from Howell Nature Center.  The bird has a rather “regal” look.  However, what you don’t see (if I did my job right) is the leather “jesses” which tether him to the “setup” branch.  The reality is that this bird was injured at some point and the Nature Center’s Rehabilitation facility nursed it back to health.  However, for some reason, the injury was so severe that they concluded that the bird would never be able to survive in the wild again.  I was no further than 15 feet away from this Owl with a 300 mm lens.  The likelyhood of being at this level and this close to an Owl in the Wild is nill.  Indeed those few professional photographers who have done so have spent weeks (even months) in the habitat with the bird, with special blinds, often build at significant expense.  And as famed wildlife photographer Moose Peterson has pointed out, takes a fair amount of biological knowledge and study.

Miranda, the Red Tailed Hawk (captive)

Likewise, Miranda, the female Red Tailed Hawk, has been a long time resident of Howell.  She has developed a distinct “human imprint” and a relationship with her handlers.  This makes for a myriad of interesting poses on her part.  But as the Audubon article notes they are just that – poses.  The likelihood of capturing a photo like this of a Red Tailed Hawk in the wild is very low.

The rehabilitation specialists at Howell (and similar rehabilitation facilities) make careful evaluation of these conditions.  In the event that they conclude that the raptor can be rehabilitated and released back into the wild to survive on its own, they carefully avoid significant human contact (to avoid “imprint”).  For many raptors, federal law prohibits the captive ownership of the birds (and indeed in some cases makes even possession of feathers illegal).  However, it is possible for rehabilitation centers like Howell to obtain a federal license to own and use these magnificent birds for educational purposes.  The Audubon article notes that these centers serve an important purpose.  In fact, they distinguish them from the “game farms” whose sole purpose is to hold captive wildlife species like cougars, wolves and bears, as models for photographers.

The article raisessome troubling issues.  What happens to the young wildlife that is born in captivity?  How is the wildlife treated?  And is such captivity simply mistreatment?  I am not sure what the answers to these questions are.  I have no quibble with shooting the rehabilitation center birds which have been human imprinted and have been permanently injured.

I have shot at Howell several times and am grateful to them for the opportunity.  They charge a modest admission and the proceeds go to the rehabilitation center for its needs.  I see that as a “win/win.”

Opossum (captive)

However, I have always felt that it was my obligation to identify them as “captive.”  Perhaps it has previously been a “sense of honor” and honesty.  I haven’t ever had an opportunity to photograph at a game farm, but cannot say I hadn’t considered it.  However, I am now re-thinking that posture (or lack thereof).  And perhaps more importantly I see the reason to disclose that a subject is captive very differently.

It is possible to have certain “captive” situations that you might encounter in the wild.  Some animals are naturally more gregarious and some are much more skittish.  For example, I didn’t have a camera, but I did have an encounter in the wild with an Opossum similar to this captive image in Northern Michigan several years ago.

Perhaps we owe it to those who view our photographs of “nature” to disclose that they aren’t always “natural.”  I wouldn’t want anyone to get the wrong impression of nature from my photographs.  As the Audubon article notes, nature isn’t perfect and it isn’t always pretty – at least when it comes to wildlife.  It is important from an educational standpoint that we distinguish reality from “unreality.”

4 Responses

  1. Andy, I’ve shot wild animals at zoos and other places where animals are captive. (I’ve even shot a wild snapping turtle at a nature center where the turtle wasn’t an official resident. He apparently lived in a nearby pond or lake.) If people ask where I took a particular photo, I tell them. Frankly I think this whole controversy about whether a photo of an animal is a “wild” animal or a wild animal in captivity is much ado about nothing. If only the the world’s problems were as inconsequential as this.


  2. Great post Andy! It really makes you think. I love the owl — a few weeks ago there was one in my back woods. I came in to get my camera — I did not get close — as soon as I zoomed the lens — away she flew!

  3. Thanks, Donna!

    Hey, Al. As always, appreciate your post and your POV. I would probably have readily agreed with you prior to reading the article and thinking about it. I don’t want to start down the slippery slope of “animal rights.” That wasn’t the intention in the post (nor yours in the response, I am sure).

    I am more interested in what constitutes “honesty” in our photography — and when it matters. I haven’t personally sorted all that out yet. I do think there are time when we need to affirmatively disclose and other times when we don’t.

    The “though-provoking” part of the Audubon article for me was “what natural conclusions people draw from images they see.” We don’t often see the cougar with “gore” from a fresh kill all over its face, or a scruffy bird or animal that has suffered through the starvation of winter. We do see many photos that are simply improbable in nature — either because it doesn’t happen that way, or because we are very unlikely as humans to capture such images in the wild.

    Obviously Audubon has an “axe to grind” and they will take what you find perhaps trivial much more seriously. I will agree that world hunger, polution, war and famine are much higher on the list of things to get excited about :-).

    Ironically, Audubon himself thought nothing of killing the bird and stuffing it so he could paint it!

  4. I would think that most wildlife photographers are the type of people who have a love and a respect for the wildlife they are photographing. With that being said, it seems that holding an animal captive for the specific purpose of profiting from it goes against this.

    Here is a link I received just today from a member of my camera club…….timing is everything. 🙂 This wildlife photographer put his life (stupidly in my opinion) in extreme danger, just to catch the shots of these animals in their natural environment.


    I can imagine where this guy lies in the captive vs wild photography debate!

    By the way, I’m still waiting for a bald eagle to fly in front of my lens. 🙂

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