I came across an article in a magazine published in North America that addresses a highly debated subject: baiting wildlife to get great pictures. As both a wildlife photographer and conservation-minded individual with a background in exotic animals, I have some definite opinions on this. The Editor-in-Chief added a notation to the article, stating that they know the this is a hot topic that will spark debate, and asking for “tastefully written commentary on the issue.” Here is my commentary, emailed a few minutes ago to the editor. The image above was sent as a lo-res attachment, and I added the note that no baiting was used to get it. I am not posting this to start my own “Bait Debate,” I am simply revealing my stance on it. If anyone wants to debate it, I will have to ask that you do it on your own blog. If you try to debate it with me, my views are listed in the comment that was emailed, and they will remain as such. Thanks.
I would like to respond to your courteous invitation to comment on the subject of baiting raptors.
As nature and wildlife photographers, we have the responsibility of being respectful while out in the field, and maintaining that respect with our individual subjects. Most of us didn’t choose “nature” just to have a photo topic; we chose it because we care a out the plants, animals, environments, etc., that we are incorporating into our images. The fact that we are carrying a camera does not give us carte blanche when making those images. Baiting wildlife to obtain exceptional or particular images violates the sanctity of a wildlife photographer’s job.
When we take an picture of a bird, for example, our end goal for that image may be to enlighten others of its conservation, to market a product to which it is linked (think tiger and Exxon, parrot and Captain Morgan’s, impala and Chevrolet, etc.), to publish in a calendar, magazine, a book about a particular destination, or a stock image for multiple uses. Now, we all want to get the best possible image when given the opportunity, but baiting the animal in question is just another term for feeding it, no matter the reason for which it is done. Feeding wildlife is a bad idea for several reasons unrelated to photography: feeding a wild animal changes its natural habits. Animals are opportunists by design–they live moment-to-moment, and change their survival habits according to surrounding conditions, such as food supply, habitat availability, etc. They have to; that is why it is called “survival.” If you bait an owl with one mouse, one morning, it may not seem so bad from your point of view. But what about the three, six, or even twenty photographers who show up after you that day to do the same thing, in order to achieve the same resulting images? The animals cannot “un-learn” what they have learned: that an easy food source is nearby, and fairly reliable. Suddenly the coveted owl(s) hang around one spot, waiting to be fed. It doesn’t hunt other areas of its territory, and rodent populations there increase. It stays away from its nest for longer periods of time, and the eggs or hatchlings are subjected to death, either by predation or exposure. Maybe the owl doesn’t even migrate, due to the steady supply of food, and when winter comes, it freezes in the extreme temperatures. Some people may scoff at these statements, but there have been cases where these incidents have occurred. I understand that some conservation groups are even looking at the impact backyard bird feeders have on feeding and migration habits of warblers and other “feeder” birds.
Many species, especially birds of prey, are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which includes all of North America, Great Britain, and Japan. The wording on the Act is a bit gray, but it does say “persue,” which baiting could be argued to be. Let’s not forget: they may be “just birds,” but they are also predators. They come equipped with sharp beaks and piercing talons that enable them to be so successful in their natural environment. An attack on a person in expectation of food would not be unheard of in conditioned animals, even birds. Let me make this point another way–I live in Florida, where we have lots of alligators. It is illegal to feed alligators. Period. No bread, marshmallows, lunch leftovers, etc., because the goators then understand that people will feed them, and approach humans looking for handouts. Bad idea, considering this is a predatory reptile that can potentially grow up to twelve feet long and possesses a mouthful of pointed teeth. However, thousands of alligators are killed every year, deemed a “nuisance,” all because someone thought it was a good idea to feed them. Would you bait an alligator for an awesome close-up? Probably not, as it would be a foolhardy and dangerous thing to do, and would eventually lead to the death of the animal. Not a great legacy for a “wildlife lover” to leave. While an owl is probably not going to rip your limbs off, eventually the habits caused by baiting (feeding) could lead to the death of the bird as well, for any of the reasons listed up to this point.
The North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA) has a very clear-cut Code of Ethics and a Principles of Ethical Field Practices, both found as PDFs on their website, that outline acceptable and respectful behavior for wildlife and nature photographers regarding their subjects and surrounding environments. Even individuals who are not members, as I am currently not, would be well-advised to follow these guidelines to demonstrate their respect of their subject, rather than a paparazzi mentality of getting the shot first.
Getting the money shot is nice, fantastic even, but not when it comes at the expense of your subject, and whether or not you are able to see how your actions impact the bird after the fact. If you can’t get your desired images unobtrusively, then there are people who keep captive wildlife, such as falconers, who may be willing to fly their birds for you for a fee, or in exchange for a few nice images of their birds.
Thank you for offering the opportunity to comment on this topic. I speak as a longtime wildlife photographer and Florida Master Naturalist who has spent uncounted hours with both captive and wild subjects. For the record, my objection has nothing to do with a “supernatural effect,” as Mr. Linstead phrases it, nor does it have to do with a toddler-like unwillingness to share that is also speculated. My views are simply that baiting is not the harmless practice many perceive it to be, from a biological standpoint, and if we are going to call ourselves “nature photographers,” the nature should come first.”