Award-Winning Photographs Capture Intimate Moments in Wildlife Rescue Operations
As the national Senior Photographer within the RSPCA’s Brand team, my job is all about visual communication; taking authentic images that highlight the RSPCA as a dynamic, passionate, and modern animal welfare organization.
The RSPCA is the oldest and largest animal welfare charity in the UK. It comprises many different specialist departments, including animal rescue, rehabilitation and rehoming, investigations and prosecutions, campaigns, veterinary care, education, and science.
Every department within the organization requires high-quality and up-to-date photographic images to help document and promote their important work.
Therefore, my job presents me with a hugely diverse range of photographic assignments and responsibilities across England and Wales, and no day is ever the same.
Since starting the job just over three years ago, I am constantly pushed out of my comfort zone, and it is this that has made me the versatile, confident, and experienced photographer I am today.
Wildlife rescue and rehabilitation within the RSPCA
In addition to our wildlife rescue work in situ, we have four national RSPCA wildlife centres that provide specialist care for over 18,000 sick, injured, or orphaned wild animals each year.
Approximately 76% of these are birds, 23% are mammals, and 1% are everything else.
I joined the RSPCA in February 2020, just a few weeks before the first coronavirus lockdown was announced, ordering people to “stay at home.”
Given that my job was to photograph all aspects of the charity’s work nationwide, this was throwing a spanner in the works for me. At this point, I wasn’t allowed to travel too far afield or gain entry to any of our centres.
I had just moved to Hastings in East Sussex, and the only thing I was granted permission to do was shadow my local rescue teams who, as ‘key workers’, were continuing their essential work.
For four months, this involved following RSPCA animal rescue officers and Inspectors around Sussex and neighbouring counties in my car (sometimes covering over 200 miles a day) and photographing them as they continued to try and help animals in need despite restrictions.
All of this had to be done while staying outside, wearing appropriate PPE, and adhering to social distancing rules.
Given that wildlife photography hadn’t been my focus in the past, this experience was a huge eye-opener for me. Most of the victims we came across daily were either directly or indirectly affected by human activities.
Many had been injured in road accidents or wounded or trapped by fishing tackle or other litter. Others may be poisoned, contaminated with oil, attacked by cats or dogs, injured by garden implements, or deliberately shot or snared.
It was heartbreaking to see firsthand the impact that humans were having on our already diminishing wildlife populations. What made it worse was knowing that these incidents were almost entirely avoidable.
Any wildlife we picked up was taken to RSPCA Mallydams Wood Wildlife Centre in Fairlight, Hastings, which is the smallest of our four wildlife centres. However, at this point, the closest I ever got to it was the front gate.
Having photographed the animals at the point of being rescued, I became fascinated by what would happen to them once they were taken inside the centre, and I was impatient to continue documenting their journey.
The reality of taking photographs in a wildlife rehabilitation environment
In August 2020, lockdown restrictions finally eased enough for me to be allowed access to the centre.
The six photographs that made up my winning portfolio entry in the 2023 British Wildlife Photography Awards are part of a larger body of work that I produced at Mallydams over 12 months, between August 2020 and August 2021.
I learned very quickly that gaining access to a rehab facility did not mean that I was magically guaranteed opportunities to photograph what I wanted to photograph when I wanted to photograph it.
Nor did it mean I was suddenly going to produce outstanding images of wildlife.
Capturing and producing strong end-to-end wildlife rehabilitation stories within a rehab facility was far more challenging than I initially thought it would be, for several reasons.
Getting authentic insights into the world of wildlife rehabilitation is first and foremost dependent on building good relationships with members of staff, and it takes time for people to trust you enough to let their guard down in front of the camera.
At Mallydams a huge part of breaking down barriers involved being physically present in the centre as much as possible, even on my days off.
It was important to show that I was genuinely committed to learning more about the work they were doing and that I was emotionally invested in the welfare of the animals they were caring for and treating.
For me, it was the first time I had seen many species of animals close up, and I know that the staff were touched that I continued to be so excited and enthralled by everything I was seeing and documenting.
Getting staff invested
Helping staff understand that the photo stories I was creating were as valuable to them as they were to me was another important part of the process.
Any content I was creating to use at a national level, was also available for them to use as a centre for their own marketing and communication purposes.
Staff soon realised that having me around to create content for them meant they could spend more time focusing on their jobs rather than taking their photos.
Before long they became as invested in me getting my stories as I was and they came to appreciate the role that good quality images played in raising awareness and creating change, particularly within the local community.
Sharing the photos on their social channels became a really fun part of working together.
Before too long we had a Mallydams WhatsApp group within which we could not only share images but more importantly, a communication network from which staff could keep me informed as to what was happening in the centre when I was working elsewhere.
From here they let me know when anything of significance was going to be happening; when certain animals were due to be fed, washed, examined, operated on, or released. Without this, I would have missed many golden photo opportunities.
Needless to say, not every day in wildlife rehab is a joyful one. It is a stressful and emotionally charged job at the best of times, let alone during a pandemic.
Some days, I would arrive at the centre and immediately sense that morale was low, and instinctively know that it wasn’t the right moment to be sticking my camera in people’s faces. In these moments, I would either just leave altogether or focus my attention on taking animal portraits.
I have certainly come to accept that to get the shot you want, you occasionally have to get comfortable with people not always being in ‘the mood’ to be photographed.
But there is a fine line, and being able to be sensitive and respect people’s privacy during those low moments was important to me. Nurturing the close bonds I was forming with staff members, who were now also friends, was always my priority.
Photography in a wildlife rehab centre
Technically speaking, and given that a lot of the images I was taking were indoors, shooting conditions were far from ideal. Dark, small, cramped rooms with next to no natural lighting and fluorescent strip lights were all things I had to accept to work with.
I was often forced to use a high ISO and a fairly slow shutter speed, which was okay when an animal was being restrained, but not so easy when it wasn’t. I had a lot of blurred shots to delete at the end of each day.
We were also having to social distance as much as possible, and wearing a face mask caused my viewfinder to fog up, so I became pretty adept at holding my breath for long periods.
My only respite came when animals were moved to outdoor soft-release pens or pools, or when we came to release an animal back into the wild.
Most wildlife rehab centres aren’t very picturesque, so it was often frustrating to find myself with an opportunity to take a portrait of a beautiful animal in surroundings that were generally pretty ugly.
I had to be creative and find ways of shooting at angles where the background didn’t show too much, or work with a shallow depth of field.
In addition, wild animals in rehab must remain wild, so I had to keep any interaction to a minimum. Photo opportunities arose when animals were being admitted or released, moved, fed, examined, or treated.
Overall, probably the most valuable lesson I learned during that 12-month period was that even with bucketfuls of technical knowledge, patience, and know-how, getting my shot was often heavily reliant on luck and being in the right place at the right time.
Creating a brighter future for wildlife
These images represent the exceptional and inspirational work undertaken by the team of RSPCA wildlife rehabilitation vets and wildlife centre staff at Mallydams during an incredibly challenging and unique moment in history.
They are a humbling reminder of the lengths that humans will go to protect and nurture animals, even amidst a global pandemic.
They also remind me that my journey into the world of wildlife rehabilitation would have looked very different had it not been for Covid-19.
I would not have had the luxury of being able to focus so much of my time and attention on a specific region of the country and certainly not on one individual centre.
My job with the RSPCA gives me a unique and privileged insight into the world of wildlife rescue and rehabilitation, which has significantly changed the way I now view and understand the world I live in.
I am reminded every day that by making small changes, we can all make a big difference.
I hope that by sharing my images, I can inspire others to want to protect wildlife and play their part in making our planet a better place for all its inhabitants.