For twelve bucks you too can have a copy of this Collector’s Edition. It is a wonderful compilation of Canadian wildlife images, spanning a breadth of beasties from the creepy and crawly, to feathery, furry and toothy. However, you’ll also find photos of captive wildlife in the issue, including the cover shot.
If Canadian Geographic insists on including captive animals in their wildlife photo contests and Collector’s Editions, as they currently do, I think they should recognize them as a distinct category – apart from wild-shot images. People pay money to enter these contests on the faint hope that they might win a prize. Apples should at least be judged against apples.
Most published images of cryptic animals like wolves, wolverines, lynx, cougars etc are taken at game farms where people pay money to photograph captive animals. Opinions vary widely on the merits and ethics of these activities, and I won’t go into a long debate about that here. But this much is undeniably true: photographing captive animals is not the same thing as photographing their wild brethren.
Notwithstanding the myriad differences between captive and wild photography, it is decidedly easier to get high quality photos of captive animals than wild ones – especially for things like wolves that are rarely seen.
For me, part of the excitement of real wildlife photography is that there are no guarantees. It can take days or weeks of trying, and countless shots, to get one keeper. By comparison, photographing captive animals is akin to fishing in an aquarium.
Difficulty aside, staring at a grizzly through a fence in a zoo is just not as exciting as watching one splash through a salmon stream in a misty fjord. Nor is a photo of a captive grizzly as interesting as a wild-taken photo. At least, not in my opinion. Looking at the latter makes me feel robbed of the experience I am want from wildlife photos.
When done well, an image of a bear in a stream can pull me into the photographer’s experience, evoking the sensation of being there amongst the ancient cedars – salmon thrashing around my ankles – as the bruin creeps towards the riverbank.
By comparison, imagining somebody snapping photos from behind a fence, or at a game farm with animal handlers all around, leaves much to be desired. I know I am talking subjectively here. I know many will not agree with me. But I don’t believe the essence of wildlife can be found in a zoo, nor the essence of wildlife photography found in captive-made images.
In the 2010 Wildlife Photography Contest, a picture of a captive grizzly bear won the Mammal category. The accompanying caption for that photo on Canadian Geographic’s website says the photographer “tried not to get too close to this eight-year-old resident of Kicking Horse Mountain Resort’s Grizzly Bear Refuge, near Golden, B.C.”
How do you get too close to an animal on the other side of an electrified fence?
Perhaps the editors who wrote the caption did not realize the Kicking Horse Refuge is a captive facility? Or, at worst, they were insinuating that the photo was taken in the wild (I sincerely hope not). Either way, I think the caption is implicit recognition that there is something different about photographing animals in the wild – on their terms – where one has to keep their wits about them and not get too close.