Is it ethical to photograph captive animals?

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March 2, 2012 at 11:22 am  •  Posted in Q&A by  •  8 Comments

I would love to go to Africa, the Galapagos or the Arctic to photograph animals but since that’s not possible for me, I do so at zoos, the African Lion Safari in Cambridge, ON and at wildlife rehab centres. But several members of my camera club say that it’s not right to photograph captive animals even if you mark your photos as “taken in controlled conditions”. What is your philosophy on this?
—Martine L.

While some photographers maintain that a simulated image is a lie most have adopted a more pragmatic approach, Martine. Many photo enthusiasts and pros regularly work with “wildlife models” at zoos and safari parks for the sheer enjoyment of the experience or to make dramatic images. There is no clear-cut answer to your question, but the compelling logic behind photography of animals in controlled conditions seems to have converted many photographers.

If you have the time and the budget and a super telephoto lens -- as well as the expertise to do so safely and without stressing your subjects -- it's great to photograph birds and mammals in their own habitat. That's not always practical however and there are other reasons why it may not be ideal for everyone. (500-mm f/4 lens; Florida locations). © 2010 Peter K. Burian

If you have the time and the budget and a super telephoto lens—as well as the expertise to do so safely and without stressing your subjects—it's great to photograph birds and mammals in their own habitat. That's not always practical however and there are other reasons why it may not be ideal for everyone. (500 mm f/4 lens; Florida locations). © 2010 Peter K. Burian

Photography in the wilderness is very difficult and time consuming. Some species are extremely elusive (almost impossible to find) while others are endangered and deserve to be left in peace. “If every wanna-be was staking out the real thing, the pressure on animals in the wild would be exceptionally great,” says Joe Van Os of Van Os Photo Safaris. Pro photographer Joe McDonald adds this perspective about parks with animals available for photography. “They have helped to combat a misunderstanding and terror of various species of animals, especially wolves, making their conservation a cause celebre.” Also remember that many such animals have been raised in captivity, or have been injured, so they would not be able to survive in the wilderness.

It's possible to work with many species in controlled conditions to get dramatic images in a safe and humane manner, especially during a photo workshop. In the past few months I have attended two with Ray Barlow Workshops, one at the Muskoka Wildlife Centre (near Gravenhurst, ON) and the other at the Canadian Raptor Conservancy (near Port Dover, ON). © 2012 Peter K. Burian

It's possible to work with many species in controlled conditions to get dramatic images in a safe and humane manner, especially during a photo workshop. In the past few months I have attended two with Ray Barlow Workshops, one at the Muskoka Wildlife Centre (near Gravenhurst, ON) and the other at the Canadian Raptor Conservancy (near Port Dover, ON). © 2012 Peter K. Burian

Of course, purists believe in remaining true to the original definition of nature photography and others are concerned about the ethics of keeping animals captive for profit. That is understandable but everyone needs to make his or her own decision in both respects. Personally, I have photographed wildlife in their habitats in Alberta, British Columbia, Florida and Brazil but that’s not practical on a regular basis. Hence, I frequently do so in controlled conditions, at locations where the subjects are obviously well cared for and humanely treated.

Unless you have strong feelings against this type of photography, animals in controlled conditions can provide an ideal way to get close-up photos and sometimes, dramatic behaviours. Patronize only the reputable wildlife centers and workshop firms, respect their rules to avoid stressing the subjects, and label your images honestly. Follow these steps and you’ll find there is simply no better or safer means to getting excellent photographs of many species especially carnivores and raptors.

8 Comments

  1. Myer Bornstein / March 2, 2012 at 4:52 pm / Reply

    Right on- label a such and enjoy the experience

  2. Hugh McCormack / March 2, 2012 at 6:14 pm / Reply

    I, personally, don’t have an issue with photographing captive animals provided they are in an environment as close to their normal habitat as can be. Unfortunately the bigger the species involved the greater the size of created habitat required and the smaller the chance that this will be provided. I have seen numbers of animals displaying various levels of neurotic behaviours because of their captivity. As a result they don’t make particularly good photographic subjects.

  3. Angela / March 2, 2012 at 7:09 pm / Reply

    Thank you so much for this article. As an animal lover I’ve often felt conflicted when photographing captive animals in zoos. Sometimes the conditions aren’t great and the animals look so unhappy which makes me feel sad for them as well. However it’s very expensive, physically challenging and even dangerous to photograph animals in the wild. It makes sense that it can also cause them a lot of stress if so many photographers are out there invading their territory.
    In my opinion it’s more ethical to visit accredited wildlife sanctuaries. There are so many of them around the world that care for abandoned and abuse animals and they need our support. Besides getting good photos, as photographers we can help to promote the good work that these people are doing in rescuing these animals, many from extinction.

  4. Rick Reeve / March 2, 2012 at 9:59 pm / Reply

    I have no problem with folks photographing captive animals. However, if they post any images taken, then I believe they should include the phrase (captive) in their caption accompanying the photo.

  5. Birth Of a Manta Ray / March 3, 2012 at 1:50 am / Reply

    Hi,

    I just discovered your post and I really appreciated it. Big thanks and keep sharing.

  6. Peter K Burian / March 5, 2012 at 4:19 pm / Reply

    Yes, of course, we should be honest about the fact that an animal photo was not taken in the wilderness. (For example, I even do that when posting photos on my facebook page.)

    And yes, in some circumstances, animals in captivity can produce behaviours that are not typical in the wilderness. I’m not sure what the solution is to that.

    But sure, in an ideal world we would all have hidden blinds where we could go to photograph animals in their own habitat — without them being aware of us — but very, very few people can do so.

  7. Brian / March 6, 2012 at 3:44 am / Reply

    I think it is more ethical to use captive animals than to photograph wild animals. Captive animals are habituated to people so the presence of people and cameras does not bother them. many photographers do not know enough about the animals they are photographing to make good photos without disturbing them. I was attacked by a wild turkey once. He was fine with my position until I raised the camera then he attacked. I found out later that another photographer had invaded his body space trying to get a close up with an inadequate lens. Apparently he got too close and invaded the turkeys body space. Other photographers have been know to clip branches out of the way so they could get a clear shot of the baby birds in a nest. That practice leaves the nest visible and exposed to predators. Many photographers show their wild subjects the respect they deserve as wild animals and avoid stressing their subjects. There is nothing wrong with photographing wild animals but learn about them first. Find out how far away you must remain to stay out of their body space and use the equipment that enables you to do so.

  8. Raymond Barlow / March 6, 2012 at 10:16 am / Reply

    In many cases, these animals, or birds are hand raised by humans, much like your dog or cat. In other cases, they are at the wildlife centers because of various issues that would prevent them from being released back into the wild. They provide a great educational example, children from all over Ontario have a chance to see incredible birds and animals up close, so they may learn how to appreciate our wildlife world around us.

    For me, they make great models, many people want a chance to learn how to take better photographs, so I work with 3 locations here in Ontario to provide a great learning environment, so folks can enjoy the entire experience, rather then a classroom type of environment.

    It’s fun, and educational.

    Special thanks to Peter Burian for all the help.

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