With the conclusion of the first Wildlife Photography of the Year contest and the launch of Canadian Geographic's December 2008 wildlife issue, Canada's fauna is top of mind for us these days. Wildlife photography, such as the winning contest images and the photos in this month's issue of CG, offers a glimpse into the lives of the many species with whom we share this country. In this three-part series, the Canadian Geographic Photo Club explores the ethical dilemmas facing Canada's wildlife photographers.
Part Two: baiting wildlife
Photographers Mike Grandmaison and John E. Marriott spent six days in Churchill, Man., in November, 2008, trying to get close-up pictures of the town's famously plentiful polar bears from the safety of a tundra buggy.
Both Marriott and Grandmaison are professionals in the industry, and while they don't focus entirely on wildlife photography, the purpose of this northern excursion was to get some great shots of polar bears. During a free day at the end of their trip, a few tour companies and hotel employees recommended a different kind of photo-op at a sled dog operation outside town.
"The owner feeds polar bears, he says, to get them to not eat his sled dogs, and he charges people to come in and view or photograph the bears," says Marriott, who is based in Canmore, Alta.
Both photographers felt that this was not an ethical scenario and said no to the opportunity.
Baiting animals to get great shots is a practice that's widespread in the industry, among both professionals and amateurs. While parks and protected areas may have rules about feeding wildlife, it's not an entirely restricted practice in Canada and there are arguments both for and against it.
Grandmaison, a nature photographer based in Winnipeg, has had his work published worldwide and has authored books such as Georgian Bay, a photographic exploration of the region. He considers himself a naturalist, stemming from his time spent at Laurentian University studying biology. Grandmaison believes in trying to protect the subject and the environment as much as possible and that baiting could adversely affect animals. "Baiting can certainly be disruptive," he says, "which could lead you to problems since you are changing the behaviour of the animal."
For a photographer to decide whether he or she will coax animals toward their lens with bait, they first must determine what actions constitute as baiting. For some, like Marriot, who avoid the practice, baiting means enticing wildlife with any type of food or water or an illusion of the two. Others tend to think there are more grey areas in the definition of baiting and that photographers must use their discretion based on the situation.
"To me, it is simple: if you attract wildlife with food or water, you are baiting," said photographer Ethan Meleg in an email. "I can't understand how it's different to feed something for the purpose of watching it versus taking a photo."
Ethan Meleg, an established outdoor photographer from Wheatley, Ont., has had a love for nature and wildlife since he was a child and is currently on a one-and-a-half-year long photo expedition exploring North and Central America. While Meleg says he doesn't bait often, he does believe it can be an appropriate and useful technique for capturing images in certain situations. However, he also says that the practice requires extensive knowledge and experience to determine which situations are less dangerous to the animal or the human.
"If you do bait a subject, it is important that you are baiting in a way that mimics or is identical to a natural setting," he said in an email. "A photographer must also be prepared to not bait if it poses a risk to the animal."
Similarly, Grandmaison, while he seldom practices baiting himself, says that some photographers would agree that there could be less adverse effects on certain species if carried out in an informed and responsible manner. "Sometimes you have to look at the broader situation. It may be different baiting a bear than baiting a chipmunk," he says.
While these photographers might not see eye-to-eye on the many grey areas of baiting in wildlife photography, Marriott, Grandmaison and Meleg all agree that this practice may not be as harmful a technique on certain animals as it is on others.
Grey areas aside, responsibility and knowledge of a species behaviour are huge factors in determining what the harmful consequences of baiting wildlife are. Some photographers argue that any interference with the animal can have detrimental results, while others, like Meleg, argue that baiting, in the right circumstances and with the proper knowledge, will not cause harm to the animal and may have positive results for both the animal and photographer.
"We are at a time when out society is increasingly losing touch with nature," he said in an email. "The photos or simply the enjoyment that results from responsible feeding of wildlife may help strengthen our connection with the natural world."
By Michela Rosano