Every time an animal is killed as a result of human interference – food conditioning, aggression, habituation, etc – I am faced with a grim realization:
I, as a human, am part of the problem. I am one link in a chain of several billion that negatively impact wild animals.
I have written about the positive side of wildlife observation and photography, and I truly believe in the power of appreciation. But sometimes feelings of guilt overwhelm me, and I’m forced to question whether photographing wildlife is as noble as I like to think.
This past week has been particularly hard. Last week, I found out that the alpha female wolf from a newly-formed pack in Banff had to be killed due to food-conditioning leading to aggression. Worse still, it turns out this is likely the wolf I was so excited to get a chance to photograph in May. It was a brief encounter, but I loved that beautiful animal for gracing me with her presence – it was heart-breaking to learn she had to be killed.
When such a tragedy occurs, emotions run high among wildlife lovers. Facebook is filled with comments about how stupid people are. This ephemeral group of stupid people consists of ignorant tourists, selfish photographers, arrogant outdoor enthusiasts, conservation staff who don’t know what the heck they are doing, the list goes on… It’s like all the anger, hurt and pain culminate to create a common enemy: stupid humans.
I completely understand the frustration and anger that leads to this sentiment – I feel it myself – BUT, I have a hard time separating myself from ‘the enemy.’ Sure, I’m not feeding wildlife, but I am actively seeking out wildlife to photograph. I am continually putting myself in a situation where an animal is aware of my presence, thereby potentially adding to their conditioning towards humans. Therefore, am I not also a stupid human?
I was plagued with these thoughts when I was driving to Banff last week. The purpose was to meet a group of women who were in Banff for a leadership retreat being run by my sister, Tina Martin Forsyth and her business partner, Tiffany Johnson. Tina asked me to join the group for dinner because she used several of my wildlife images as part of the retreat, creating a photo of an animal for each participant with a message related to leadership. I was honoured to be part of the process, and have sprinkled a few of these images throughout this post.
I arrived in Banff an hour early, just enough time to do a quick run on the Bow Valley Parkway (wolf-pack territory). Since learning about the wolf death, I had been thinking, maybe I shouldn’t do that drive anymore? I pushed those worries aside, did the drive anyway and saw one of the remaining members of the pack.
The usual excitement and adrenaline pumped through my body as I pulled over and photographed the wolf (a long ways away and safely from my car). Then, when I was making my way back, I saw several Conservation Officers on the road, obviously monitoring the movements of this wolf (he was collared). My excitement turned into sadness. What was I thinking, potentially adding to the issues for the wolf pack and the COs who are working hard to protect the remaining members? ‘That’s it,’ I said to myself, ‘I’m staying off this road for the rest of the year.’
‘I saw another wolf, but I’m sad,’ I told Tina when we met later for dinner.
‘Oh really!?’ she said. ‘Well I wish you could have seen the reaction when we handed out your photos today. Everyone was so excited – they all got the exact photo and message they needed.’
I meet the women over dinner and they all thanked me for my images. ‘I got the tree swallow! I got the moose! I got the foxes! I got the ravens!’… and so on. I was so touched at how appreciative they all were.
As we were having dinner, my perspective on photographing animals shifted from guilt to gratitude. I realized how powerful a simple image can be, both for me as the photographer and those who see the photos. Pictures of animals have the power to transform our perspective, to take us beyond a world of logic and linear thinking. This transformative realization reminded me of a simple truth: humans are part of nature too. It does not have to be people against animals, we are not just stupid humans and are certainly not the enemy.
What a gift that dinner in Banff was for me – the guilt over seeing another wolf completely disappeared. I was left with gratitude for another amazing wildlife encounter and a renewed desire to photograph wildlife from a place of appreciation and respect.
So what should we do about the larger issues?
I have so many opinions about wildlife-related issues, all the things people should and shouldn’t do when viewing/photographing animals. Sometimes I want scream my feelings out to the world, physically or digitally, ALL IN CAPS, on Facebook. But, five years of photographing wildlife does not make me an expert on the matter. I have strong opinions, but lack the years of experience and education needed to come from a place of authority. I do not feel equipped to suggest any sort of a solution to this complex issue. Sure, there are the obvious actions – not feeding wildlife, not leaving food out, keeping your distance – but everyone who reads this post already knows this common-sense stuff.
All I can do is be aware of my own actions, my impact on wildlife, to continually learn and ensure I’m equipped to photograph wildlife with the utmost respect. Seeking out like-minded people and sources of information elicits healthy debate and often leads me to new ways of thinking. I’m lucky to have had the opportunity to get to know a number of people with similar interests and values. With the recent Banff wolf incident, my Ghost Bear Photography friends (D. Simon Jackson and Jill Cooper) have been particularly helpful. I emailed Simon about my sadness over the loss of the alpha female (he and Jill also saw her) and I appreciate both his understanding of how I felt and perspective on the greater issue. He gave me permission to share something he wrote that really stuck me:
“I don’t know what the answer is, but we must move the conversation beyond cyber-shaming and finger pointing. We need productive solutions that strike a better balance – and ones that don’t make you feel guilty for enjoying nature responsibly. After all, spending time in nature with animals is the best way to learn how we can better coexist with them.” – D. Simon Jackson, Ghost Bear Photography.
Simon’s words reminded me of an article he wrote years ago:
I love this article, and I recall how excited I was the first time I read it. As I said, I’m not an authority on the matter, but I don’t often find such a balanced perspective on wildlife issues. I see a lot of articles, blog posts, comments on Facebook, etc that highlight how ‘stupid people need to stop doing stupid things.’ This is true, but that type of negativity is not really useful dialogue in my opinion.
The combination of my own experience and what I learn from others gives me the confidence needed to photograph and view wildlife without guilt. There are many more people (aside from Simon and Jill) – Jamie, Paul, Tim, Peter, Mike, Dan, Dee, numerous facebook friends, etc – who contribute to my way of evaluating the world of wildlife viewing and photography and I’m grateful to them all.
At the moment, I’m still sad about the wolf that was killed in Banff, but I’m relieved to have moved to a place of gratitude (vs. guilt.) I’m going to continue driving the mountain roads, looking for animals, knowing I’m being governed by an authentic desire to spread appreciation and love for these beautiful creatures.
Until next time, continue to love life and all things wild! 🙂
P.S – Another note – CBCRadio’s The Current had an interesting segment on the wolf in Banff on June 10, 2016: