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The New West: What happens when ‘wildlife photography’ masquerades as something it’s not?

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CREDIT: David J Swift

CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

With each passing day, it seems, we learn more about the insidious impact of “fake news”—how politicians, companies, governments and operatives with hidden agendas exploit the gullibility of the public to believe almost anything.

Does a fake news parallel exist in wildlife photography?

A few months ago, two paragons of the British tabloid press, The Sun and Daily Mail, published “stories” featuring photographs purported to be of a wild Montana grizzly bear tangling with a pack of wild snarling wolves over a deer carcass. The dramatic images came replete with breathlessly worded captions referencing bared teeth and blood smears in the snow.

Blaring above The Sun’s story was this click-bait headline: “Brawl of the Wild: Dramatic moment 600lb bear takes on pack of wolves over a deer carcass is captured by British tourist in the Rocky Mountains.” A corresponding subhead read, “Pictures show the wolves attempt to fight back but one by one they are swatted away by the grizzly’s giant paws.”

The photos were the work of Tom Littlejohns, described as a 75-year-old logistics consultant and nature photographer from Guildford in Surrey, England southwest of London. “In these particular images, I saw the change from relatively docile and almost large cuddly wolves become unbelievably ferocious both with each other and prepared to take on a fully grown Grizzly,” Littlejohns allegedly told one reporter.

The predator-on-predator encounter, said to have taken place in Montana’s Crazy Mountains east of Bozeman (in the middle of winter no less and where there are no grizzlies) aroused immediate attention among locals in our region. Read The Sun story here.

Screen Shot 2017-01-17 at 9.03.35 PMSteve Primm, whose day job is serving as founding partner of People and Carnivores, a Bozeman-based non-profit devoted to resolving conflicts between humans and predators, called the alleged real-life scenes horse pucky.

Quickly, he was joined in his assessment by a respected bear manager with the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and by the senior wolf biologist in Yellowstone.

As Littlejohns’ photos circulated virally on Facebook, they came under more intense scrutiny from American wildlife photographers and conservationists who noted they were actually staged using captive animals allegedly rented out by Animals of Montana, a game farm located outside of Bozeman.

Personal confession: Over the years I have penned books and magazine stories that have been illustrated with wildlife images taken by photographers at game farms though I had no involvement in the photo selection. I also have close wildlife-artist friends who routinely frequent game farms to study animals for paintings and sculptures.

Animals of Montana, which as a “wildlife menagerie” is permitted by FWP, has been under close scrutiny for years following dozens of alleged violations, including an incident in which an animal keeper was killed by a bear. Here is link to a department press release in 2016.

Animals of Montana has often refuted the allegations.

Littlejohns, when pressed to explain how he got such remarkable shots, boasted on social media that he did indeed employ the services of Animals of Montana; still, huge numbers of readers who saw his bear and wolf photos were likely duped. I reached out to The Sun and Daily Mail in January, requesting an interview with their reporters and asking the newspapers to put me in touch with Littlejohns, but received no reply.

Does it matter that the media and photographer were less than transparent? Melissa Groo, a world-renowned, award-winning nature photographer who writes a popular column on ethics for Outdoor Photographer magazine, is among of handful of shooters, including Jackson Hole photographer Thomas Mangelsen, who said yes, absolutely, it does.

The use of captive game farm animals has long been a divisive subject within the world of professional wildlife photography and it’s one of the reasons why the International League of Conservation Photographers, comprised of some of the best lenspeople on earth, was formed.

Groo says using captive animals as working models (grizzlies, wolves, African lions and Siberian tigers, among others, rent out for $500 per one-hour session at Animals of Montana); forcing them to pose on command for food rewards; and keeping them confined most of their lives to smallish pens compared to huge natural home ranges in the wild, raises a number of ethical questions.

While defenders claim commercial game farms serve a valuable purpose such as allowing wildlife artists to gather reference material for paintings and sculptures, Groo and others point to deception: Some photographers have exploited game farms to take short cuts in building portfolios and many media outlets they sell pictures to routinely fail to disclose that the shots were manufactured. It’s unknown how much Littlejohns made from selling his bear/wolf photos.

Josh Able from Bobs Creek Photography said, “My first reaction was sadness because, just by seeing Littlejohns’ pictures, I knew it was yet another photographer passing off captive animals as wild. Upon really looking at the pictures I was more than a little horrified that anybody would create such an animal-versus-animal conflict with risk of injury for the animals,” he said, mentioning something else.

“As a photographer who spends a ton of time in Yellowstone, I see the side effect of captive animal shoots very often. People see pictures online and expect that they are going to be able to stand 30 feet from a wild animal to photograph it,” he added. “In my view wildlife photography is capturing a true representation of nature. Nothing staged, nothing ‘set up.’ Wildlife photography needs to be honest.”

Photographer Sebastian Kennerknecht expressed similar indignation. “Whether that story was fabricated by the photographer or the author, to me it exemplifies how this situation would be perceived as being ethically wrong, and needing to be covered up, while still publishing pictures that were oh-so-hard to get, when in reality it was all staged, but also putting animals into real danger,” he said.

Another photographer Tom Carlisle, along with Groo, Kennerknecht and Able, pointed me to a conundrum created by Littlejohns, the media and game farm.

If the “wild” scenes are fake, then Littlejohns and the newspapers should acknowledge it, they say; if the stories represent accurate depictions of what actually happened on the shoot—a grizzly and wolves being forced to “battle” over a deer carcass—does it then represent a possible violation of animal welfare laws, the same kind that forbid dog and cockfighting?

Andrea Jones, chief spokesperson with the FWP regional office in Bozeman, said the department is aware of the issues and currently looking into them.

Demetri Price, the lead trainer at Animals of Montana, told me he had neither seen Littlejohns’ photo spreads nor how the shoot was portrayed in print. He suggested that both the Internet and social media are places where distortion of the truth is rife.

“A lot of this kind of stuff I can’t confirm or deny because I don’t know what it’s coming in reference to,” he said. “Keep in mind our business has been brought into disputes over and over again by people who shout very loudly with no information and others who make us out to be the bad guy.”

Animals of Montana does re-create animal interactions to simulate natural history events that actually happen in the wild, he said. Indeed, it’s true that one can observe real wild grizzlies and wild wolves tussling over carcasses in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley.

Price doesn’t see game farms, at least the well-run ones, suffering from ethical issues. And he refutes charges that captive animals are merely being exploited for profit.

“We live this [responsible treatment of animals] every single day and we are committed to the welfare of our animals. I hear garbage all the time of how we abuse this or that and it’s just not the case,” Price said. “No one is out there abusing these animals. We try to build personal relationships with all our animals so they live in a happy state. If we were beating our animals or treating them badly, you wouldn’t find happy and content animals [here that are] easy to work with.”

Todd Wilkinson is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about the West for more than 30 years and his column the New West has been widely read in the Greater Yellowstone region for nearly as long. He writes his column every week, and it’s published on on EBS off weeks. You can also read his latest book, “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek,” a story about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly 399 featuring photographs by Thomas Mangelsen.

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