Wildlife for Hire: The Controversial Practice of Game Farm Photography

damage of game farm wildlife photography

Recently, a self-described wildlife sanctuary near where I live was denied a permit to operate by our county.

The place in question had operated for two decades without a permit and made money by selling private tours and photo opportunities where people were able to engage with, and even pet, their hybrid wolf-dogs.

Guests could also photograph cougars, bobcats, and other wildlife owned by the operation.

bad photography workshop
Image credit: Susan Fox

They also bred and sold pups of the hybrids. Over the years their hybrids have escaped their enclosures a few times and killed pets in the area, terrifying the local neighbors.

It was never a sanctuary, and the judge in this case noted that the operation did not qualify for ‘sanctuary’ status.

When I expressed relief that they had been denied a permit to continue operating, one of my friends surprised me by commenting that she thought it was sad because they had “done a lot of good,” and she had enjoyed a wonderful experience there.

We argued about the value of this place, and she suggested I was too linear in my opinion and that I was dismissing her experience. 

As we talked further, I realized that, a long time ago, I felt the same as she did. I swam with dolphins in an enclosed sea pen in the ‘80s and thought it was a thrilling experience.

damage of game farm wildlife photography
Image credit: Susan Fox

I reflected on how I went from the person I was back then to one who now thinks no one should be permitted to offer such forced encounters with wildlife. What was the key to changing my mind?

The bottom line is education.

The dangers of game farm photography

In the ‘80s I would have simply told you I had an amazing experience with dolphins. I admit back then it didn’t occur to me the experience was likely stressful to the dolphins and harmful to their long-term health and well-being.

I thought I loved animals, but my point of view was still human-centric and lacking in true empathy. 

My evolution began with photography. The more I began photographing wildlife, the greater my appreciation developed for wildlife in wild settings.

But, like every other wildlife photographer I know, I made mistakes when I started out. I got too close on occasion, flushing birds when I didn’t mean or want to.

wild owl photography
If you have a lot of bird pictures like this, odds are you are getting too close to your subject. Some birds feel threatened even if they’re sitting on a wire above the road.

I knew about flight or fight spaces animals have from a college study I had done on zoo animals, so I understood when a bird took off that I had crossed that line from presence to threat.

What took longer for me to learn was how to spot the behavioral clues that I was about to cross the line, that the bird (or animal) was getting stressed.

That comes from observation, learning about the species and watching carefully – basically, time in the field. I learned that stressing a bird or animal might prohibit it from feeding or cause it to become aggressive.

My college study taught me that caged animals survive by accepting their keepers as a member of their own species, typically as one lower in the hierarchy.

This enables the captive animal to accept food from handlers but can also lead to aggressive behavior that sometimes ends in tragedy when the animal gets stressed (think of escaped circus elephants that go on rampages or captive predators that turn on their captors).

None of that is taught at photo game farms, where photographers and filmmakers pay to take photos of elusive, genetically wild carnivores forced to perform in ways that enable people to get remarkable shots.

negative impact of game farm photography
Image credit: Susan Fox

You have likely seen these photos. Baby bobcats peering out of the mouth of a log, a cougar leaping from one rock to another directly over the photographer, wolves standing together and staring at the camera in close proximity to the photographer.

If it looks like an unreal and nearly impossible photo to capture, it very possibly may have been shot at a photo game farm. 

In recent years wildlife photographers who spend years studying their subjects and patiently waiting to get natural behavior on camera have begun to cry foul about these staged photos.

Magazines and nonprofits have long relied on such photos to create a visual impact, but by using these images they are also misleading the public and perpetuating the behavior.

People want to get the same shots they see, and they learn the easiest way to do that is to go to a game farm or participate in a workshop with people who bait animals.

petting zoos and game farm photography
Image credit: Susan Fox

For example, a friend of mine wanted to get photos of snowy owls when she first started photographing birds.

Snowy owls are one of those subjects high on the list of many wildlife photographers because they are beautiful and they are rare in many places.

She signed up for a workshop and was guaranteed snowy owl pics. She did get them, but the owls were baited – the workshop leader threw out pet-store mice to attract the birds.

At the time, she didn’t know how harmful this method could be to the owls. And she didn’t realize that “guarantee” was a clue they would be baited. Like my experience swimming with dolphins, once she learned more, she looked back on this experience with regret.

As a wildlife conservation photographer, I consider myself an ambassador for the animals and birds I photograph. I try to share not just nice images, but information.

ethical bird photography
A bird eating its meal, like this alert American kestrel, can be especially vulnerable to disturbance and might drop its food if frightened by your presence.

I model the behavior of wildlife photographers I admire, like Melissa Groo, who serves on the Ethics committees for the North American Nature Photography (NANPA) Association and the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP).

Isn’t that how it should work?

I may not be nationally recognized for what I do, but regionally I have a sphere of influence with the people who follow me on social media and know me personally.

When I teach them what I learn, they pass on that knowledge to their circle of friends and so on. Like a drop of water in a pond – the ripples we create travel farther than we might imagine. 

The future of photography at game farms

There’s a growing movement to stop the use of captive wild animals for human entertainment, whether it’s direct interaction or photography, and wildlife photographers are raising their voices.

As a result of influential wildlife photographers speaking out, editors are becoming more sensitive to the origins of photos they use and many are shunning game farm images for more realistic images of animals in their natural settings.

bad wildlife photography workshops

Wildlife photo contests disqualify photos taken in game farm environments. At the very least, pushing for “truth in captioning” and calling out photographers to identify when their images were shot in a staged, captive situation, may help reduce the public gullibility. 

Some game farms have been shut down due to either illegal or harmful practices, such as excessively breeding captive animals, using offspring for photo workshops then killing them once they outgrow their cuteness, or selling them off to terrible situations and people.

Every wildlife photographer who practices ethical behavior and raises their voice to educate others adds to the wave of change.

I am encouraging you to participate – whether you teach one person in your neighborhood or you share your knowledge with a flood of social media followers. Every voice can make a difference. 

We live in a world of instant gratification and perpetual selfies. We probably can’t stop all the bad behavior of people interacting with wildlife, but we can be consistent and persistent in our efforts to educate both ourselves, and others.

I know from experience that education can change minds and behavior for the better.

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