Captive wildlife and Canadian Geographic’s Best Wildlife Photos 2012.

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.

6 thoughts on “Captive wildlife and Canadian Geographic’s Best Wildlife Photos 2012.

  1. Soreya

    Hi, I have searched in Shoppers Drug Mart, Walmart, Superstore, Coles and I cannot find this magazine ANYWHERE!! Please help or provide any information you have as to where I can find it. Thank you

  2. Tim Post author

    Hmmmm,
    I found it in the first place I looked, which was Britton’s magazine shop in Ottawa. They have a huge selection of magazines, so it is no surprise that they had it, I guess. Sorry I cannot be more help. Good luck getting your hands on a copy.

  3. Ollie

    Where do you draw the line in terms of ‘wild’ wildlife photography? What about the photographer who essentially trains the wild animal to be able to take the photo they envision? For example the photographer who plants meat to lure the wolf in order to get a shot. Is this truely ‘wild’ photography?

  4. Tim Post author

    Interesting question.

    It is common practice for photographers to lure raptors with live mice. And some people take pictures at bird feeders. Few people seem to have a problem with that. However, it is illegal to feed “dangerous wildlife” like bears, wolves and cougars in British Columbia (and probably other jurisdictions too), so luring them in with food to photograph them could get you in some doo doo. Not to mention the many other risks associated with feeding animals like bears.

    Generally speaking though, I think luring wildlife – particularly carnivores- to photograph them is frowned upon, but not everywhere. There are places in Scandinavia where people feed brown (grizzly) bears the spoils from salmon farms so people hiding in blinds can photograph them. In the old days in Churchill, Manitoba, people used to throw chunks of lard out onto the snow to bring the polar bears within camera range. The white chunks of lard blended in beautifully with the snow and most people never even noticed them in the photos. This not allowed today.

    I definitely draw the line at anything that could cause wildlife (or people) harm in some way for the sake of a few photos. Feeding is almost always in this category, but there are other issues as well. Not long ago two photographers in BC were given large fines, and had their equipment confiscated, after they deliberately damaged the nesting habitat of an endangered warbler when setting up their photography blind.

    It is possible that the high quality images coming out of game farms raise the bar such that people photographing in the wild have to push the ethics envelope to get comparable images (then again, most people will never even see a wolf in the wild let alone have a chance to photograph it). So, if you don’t mind photographing captive animals, one could make the argument that doing so is less harmful than photographers harassing wild animals. That could be a long debate for another time.

    Personally, I would rather produce inferior images taken in the wild, where I get to experience wildlife interacting with its natural habitat. Said in another way, the images are not the bottom line for me. They are the icing on the cake. I studied ecology in university because it fascinates me. Wildlife and landscape photography are simply an extension of that. It is just one way I like to explore the outdoors.

    I’ve met some folks who go to game farms to take photos and have a fabulous time – and I am happy for them. It simply does not appeal to me. The point I was making in the post above is that photographs taken at game farms should be clearly labelled as such and should not be judged against photos from the wild. They are as different as static portraits of people when compared to dynamic sports photos.

  5. steeve

    Hi,
    great article, i agree with you, i did enter this photo contest in 2010 and 2011 and found that many people enter captive wildlife photos and some have been selected in the winners. I think they should specify or ask before publishing if it’s from captive animals, in the rules of the contest it’s not said anywhere that captive animals photos are not accepted.

    Personally i always entered wild animals photos (even one of my photo won a prize) in that contest and i think they should do a category for captive animals. It’s fun that they publish the photos in a special edition and i’m happy that they published 2 of my photos in that edition but i’m not sure if i will enter that contest again.

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