Story & photo by Jennifer Leigh Warner, NANPA Ethics Committee Chair
As I drive down the Colorado mountain road searching for wildlife, I spot a red fox (Vulpes vulpes) foraging off the shoulder of the road. I pull off to see if I can get a picture before it darts back into the woods, but as soon as I open my car door, I realize something is very wrong. The normally shy fox is approaching my vehicle.
Confused by the unusual behavior, I get back in the car and roll down my window to view the fox. Instead of moving on, she sits down and stares back at me. Sadly, this behavior is a result of people feeding a wild animal. The fox has become habituated to people and cars and associates them with food.
I stayed and watched her for several hours, and as new cars arrived, she ran over to greet them, too, hoping that someone would hand out her next reward. This is dangerous and potentially fatal to wildlife.
As the National Park Service (NPS) puts it, “Feeding wildlife is actually a form of animal cruelty.” People think feeding animals is harmless, but according to the NPS, “Most animals have very specific natural diets and therefore specific kinds of digestive bacteria. Being fed human food causes the wrong type of bacteria to become dominant in their stomachs. Soon these animals are no longer able to digest their natural foods. They end up starving to death with stomachs full of what they should have been eating all along.” In addition, habituation to humans and automobiles dramatically increases the danger of being hit by a vehicle.
Earlier this month, park rangers in Grand Teton National Park euthanized a red fox (known as M15) that had become habituated to humans. It was the third fox rangers have put down in the last four years. M15 had jumped on a picnic table while a family was eating and had shown other dangerous behaviors. Because it was a tagged and collared animal and part of a multiyear research project, scientists will lose all the data they would have been able to collect had it lived a normal life.
Several bears have also gotten too used to humans and been put down, including a 2018 case where a sow was euthanized and her cubs sent to an out-of-state zoo after two visitors fed fruit to the bears. The visitors were cited by park rangers and the penalty, if found guilty, is a $5,000 fine and up to six months in jail.
Feeding wildlife is a dangerous practice that is prohibited in National Parks throughout North America. Many states also ban the practice. Feeding wild animals is strongly discouraged by conservation and animal welfare organizations.
As the Ethics Committee Chair for the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA), I have been working with my committee for the past several years to develop tools to educate photographers on how to work more ethically when out in the field. Our Principles of Ethical Field Practices have served as a guide for field photographers at all levels of experience, addressing issues related to wildlife, habitats, photography equipment, other photographers, and park visitors.
NANPA is also working on a comprehensive e-book on ethical nature photography, to be released later this year. The main thrust of this handbook is learning how to think like an ethical nature photographer. Within its pages will be discussions of topics ranging from baiting animals to protecting locations to the use of specialized equipment (like flash, drones, and trail cams). The publication will also take a deeper dive into specific issues that affect different species, from birds to reptiles and mammals to insects.
In the meantime you’re welcome to check out the other ethics-related material on our website, including a Truth in Captioning Statement that summarizes best practices for the text that accompanies your images.
Now, let’s get out there and enjoy photographing wildlife ethically and responsibly!
Jennifer Leigh Warner is a fine art conservation wildlife photographer who specializes in creating meaningful images that convey a message of hope for the natural world. Jennifer feels strongly that, by sharing these images of beautiful animals in their natural environment, she can inspire those around her to preserve the world that we share with all living creatures.
As the Chair of NANPA’s Ethics Committee, Jennifer promotes the ethical practice of photographing wildlife.
Jennifer works closely with conservation organizations to help support their missions to protect wildlife and the world around us. She believes that photography is a powerful tool to share these stories, educate photo viewers on important topics, and inspire change.
You can learn more about Jennifer and the conservation work that she does by visiting her website at www.experiencewildlife.com.