Beyond localized education efforts, there are few regulations governing wildlife photography in the U.S.
Beyond localized education efforts, there are few regulations governing wildlife photography in the U.S. (Tiffany Taxis)

The Ethics of Wildlife Photography

A recent incident involving a renowned wildlife photographer allegedly baiting foxes at Grand Teton sheds light on a larger issue

Beyond localized education efforts, there are few regulations governing wildlife photography in the U.S.
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World-renowned British photographer David Yarrow was lying on his stomach in the snow on a Tuesday in late January, his camera lens pointed at a pair of red foxes padding toward him over a frozen lake at Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park. His colleague, Tom Rosenthal, stood behind, tempting and drawing the canines closer by waving a piece of cellophane wrapper from a pack of cigarettes that they might take for food.

The goal was to get a supertight shot of wild foxes, and the tactic—though ethically dubious—worked. After an image of the incident surfaced, however, along with an eyewitness allegation that the crew had illegally fed the animals, the backlash was swift. 

“If he was a tourist, I would understand,” says Tiffany Taxis, the photographer in Jackson, Wyoming, who captured the scene and reported the incident to the National Park Service. “But David Yarrow knows what he’s doing. He endangered the life of an animal so that he could get a good shot, and it really rubs me the wrong way.” 

Yarrow and Rosenthal defended their actions, saying that they didn’t actually feed the foxes. “I don’t think they can eat cigarettes, do they?” Rosenthal told me.

Two weeks later, park rangers trapped and killed one of the foxes that was present the day of Yarrow’s shoot. Because the animal was habituated and food driven, having spent the past year accosting picnickers and thieving anglers’ trout, its fate had been sealed for months—long before Yarrow’s brush with it. Nevertheless, criticism of Yarrow, known for his highly stylized photographs of high fashion, historical scenes, and wildlife, continued. A Change.org petition emerged calling for his total ban from all national parks, which has garnered more than 6,200 signatures. Those on social media who pinned the foxes’ fate on Yarrow referenced his questionable approach to wildlife photography in the past, with alleged reports of deploying animals from game farms and taking images that showed models in dangerously close proximity to African elephants. 

Yarrow told me that the past outcries have prompted him to become more introspective, contrite, and make a concerted effort to model better behavior. “I think in pursuit of creativity and authenticity, we should never push it so far that we get criticism,” he says. “Have I changed? Yes. We try to stay clear of anything that can be seen as remotely contentious.” The photographer “vehemently” denies feeding the foxes. “Did I exploit it for commercial gain? Absolutely not,” Yarrow says.

Still, once Taxis’s photo of the crew made the rounds, there was outrage, says Dave Navratil, president of the Teton Photography Club. “We didn’t have a whole lot of people telling each other to calm down,” he says.

While Navratil’s club didn’t cast its own aspersions, members did use the incident to promote their “Shoot to Care” ethics campaign, which encourages photographers to keep a safe distance, refrain from approaching dens or adult females with their young, and model behavior that puts animal welfare first. But beyond these localized education efforts, there are few regulations governing wildlife photography in the U.S. While some national parks set viewing thresholds, such as maintaning a distance of 100 yards from wolves and bears and 25 yards from other species, these measures can be difficult to enforce. Both within and beyond the parks, professional and hobby photographers are often left to their own judgement, which sometimes means prioritizing the shot over an animal’s well-being. 

“It’s all self-regulated,” Navratil says. “It comes down to each person and what they’re willing to do.”

Wildlife crowding often leads to habituation, which causes aggressive, incautious, or destructive behavior that isn’t tolerated by wildlife managers, as it puts both the animals and humans at risk. From grizzlies breaking into cars and raiding campgrounds to an increasing number of car collisions with moose or elk who have become accustomed to roads, such incidents have seen a steady rise in recent years. Photographers don’t deserve all the blame—anybody can approach an animal too closely—but the peripheral and long-term nature of a photographer’s presence can have a lasting impact on an animal’s conditioning. 

(Tiffany Taxis)

Yellowstone has dealt with human-conditioned wolves since the mid-nineties, shortly after the species was reintroduced, and the canines have proven a magnet for photographers who’ve learned where to go to view packs. In 2019, word spread locally of a visible wolf den at Yellowstone’s Slough Creek, exposing especially impressionable puppies to people. This contributed to a litter born to the Junction Butte pack that became perilously unafraid of humans. Two of the seven-month-old pups were hit and killed on roads that year, and another, known as 1273M, lost all apprehension around people; at one point, it even ran off with a tripod that had been propped up on the side of the road. 

“The guy ran after the wolf, because it was an expensive tripod,” says Doug Smith, a leader with Yellowstone Wolf Project, a program that oversees the park’s wolf research and monitoring initiatives. “The wolf dropped it, [the guy] picked it up and started bringing it back to the road, and the wolf followed him.” 

That’s a problem. Twice before, Yellowstone wolves deemed hopelessly habituated have been put down. To avoid similar consequences with the Junction Butte pack, Smith and his colleagues took a page out of Yellowstone’s 2003 plan for habituated wolf management, which calls for hazing animals that venture near roads and people with nonlethal projectiles, like paintballs. When the park’s borders closed to visitors for 55 days at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Smith’s staff went out “armed to the teeth” with the intent to reverse wolf 1273M’s conditioning. 

“To put it bluntly, we pounded him last spring when the park was closed,” Smith says. “I mean pounded him. A researcher hit him with bear spray. Any time he was on the road, we hit him with paintballs, beanbags, rubber bullets, the whole nine yards.” The nonlethal projectiles had the desired effect: keeping wolf 1273M alive. Its last close brush with people occurred when a raven researcher doused the canine with capsicum. 

The relationship between photographers and habituated grizzly bears in the greater Yellowstone region has also been an issue. Since 2017, photographers have migrated at the start of summer to Togwotee Pass, on the east side of Jackson Hole, to see one especially well-known and human-conditioned grizzly bear, a female known as Felicia.

Ursine life alongside a 70-mile-per-hour highway is fraught. Yet the Wyoming Game and Fish Department has documented illegal placement of food and grain along the highway to keep the bears habituated to feeding along the road. Felicia roams amid a national forest where there’s limited law enforcement, so photographers are generally left to police themselves. They don’t do a good job, though, and have been criticized for getting dangerously close to animals.

Last May, photo-tour guide and local resident Jack Bayles came upon a cluster of professional wildlife photographers positioned off the highway, in the grass, 50 feet from Felicia. An agitated male grizzly lingered nearby that was chomping and snapping his jaws. “I don’t know why folks are so competitive to get the full-face shots that you just can’t take ethically,” says Bayles, who adds that if you’re taking close-up shots of grizzlies without having to crop your photos, you’re too close. 

National-forest staffers who manage the land around Togwotee Pass don’t have the capacity to monitor the remote highway every time a grizzly shows up, but they are currently working with a local nonprofit, Friends of the Bridger-Teton, to develop a volunteer corps that guarantees someone is always on-site wearing official garb. “We’re really in favor of those types of efforts,” Bayles says, “and we’d like to see more of that.” 

“Outside of the parks, it largely falls on the photography community, which in today’s world usually means social media condemnation. This can be effective but has its own issues.”

It’s one thing to try and educate casual visitors on how to behave around wildlife and responsibly photograph it, says Navratil of the Teton Photography Club. It’s another to try and manage the behavior of professionals who should know better but push ethical boundaries to get the shot. “Inside a national park, you have rules that can be applied by the Park Service,” Navratil says. “Outside of the parks, it largely falls on the photography community, which usually means social media condemnation. This can be effective but has its own issues.” 

People tend to forget reason and manners during online tongue-lashings. Plus, social media scorn also takes place after the fact—when harm to the animal has already been done. In the case of the fox incident, the backlash led Yarrow to announce that he would be distancing himself from wildlife photography to focus more on fine art. “You’re not going to see a David Yarrow fox picture,” he says. “That’s not really what I do.” 

Bayles suggests a more proactive approach: photographers should police each other and speak up when they witness irresponsible or dangerous methods. “We have zero authority to do anything,” says Bayles. “But we’re the ones who are there.” So what’s the fix when no one is looking? Both Navratil and Bayles say that to keep wildlife wild and safe, professional photographers ought to develop their own ethical code—and then stick to those self-governing rules, regardless of what opportunities present themselves. “We should try to behave the same way when people are watching as when they aren’t,” says Bayles.

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