A celebrity Northern Pygmy Owl in Fish Creek Park (Calgary) has got me thinking about the wildlife celebrity phenomenon. Tips from others and word of mouth has always been an important part of wildlife photography/viewing/bird watching, but there is no doubt that the volume has significantly increased over the past few years with social media.
The ethical questions and implications for the animals are ridiculously complex. There’s a lot of debate about what you should and shouldn’t do around wildlife, in particular with the crowds that surround the growing number of celebrities. My own actions are guided by a deep love for animals and a concern for how my presence impacts their welfare. I’m always thinking about it, questioning my actions, trying to learn, etc. But I know I’m not perfect and I won’t attempt be an authority on this matter.
I was distracted by such issues when viewing the Fish Creek Pygmy Owl this past weekend – I have seen and photographed a Northern Pygmy Owl before, but my best images were lost in a tragic memory card malfunction. I was torn between the desire to see this owl and not wanting to add to the large crowd and potentially cause stress.
Then I saw something that shifted my thinking…
As I was leaving the group of owl-watchers to go home, a woman turned around and looked at me with a huge smile. She was beaming and full of light, and said something like, ‘isn’t this amazing!?’ I smiled back and said, ‘yes it is pretty darn cool!’ and headed home. This woman embodied the sheer joy that these beautiful little creatures bring to so many people. It reminded me of my first experience with a celebrity owl in Calgary…
Three years ago, January 2012, I saw an image of a Saw-Whet Owl on Flickr. And to my surprise, the owl was posted by a local photographer and was found in Carburn park, a 10 minute drive from my house. I was still new to birding at the time, but I felt an irresistible pull to see that adorable little owl in person. I found a phone number for Gus Yaki, Calgary’s top birding expert, who found the owl on his Friends of Fish Creek bird walk. Gus was happy to give me directions, as well as some history on the little owl, so I headed out to Carburn on my quest.
Even with the most precise directions in the world, it is really difficult to find a Robin-sized owl in an enormous park. I wandered around for at least an hour, asking other walkers if they had seen the owl – no luck. Then I came upon a group of about 10 birders at a stand of bushes. Gus was one them – he looked at me and said something like, ‘would you like to see a Saw-whet Owl?’
‘Yes, that’s what I’m looking for!’ I replied.
The surprisingly small figure was nestled under a large branch, the doughy eyes partially open, peering out through the bouquet of delicate feathers. ‘Oh my god!’ I exclaimed!
‘It’s not god, but it is an owl,’ Gus said.
It really was an indescribable feeling, and for me, it solidified what was already a fairly strong passion for birding and wildlife photography. I have experienced the same feeling countless times since – amazing creatures grace me with their presence, completely unaware of the impact they have on my life. That’s what makes them so beautiful. I am quite certain the woman with the Pygmy Owl was experiencing the same sense of awe I had when I saw the Saw Whet Owl.
In my opinion, spreading appreciation and knowledge is the other side, the positive side, of the wildlife celebrity phenomenon. As a result of social media, more people than ever before are getting a chance to see and learn about various types of wildlife. There is a reason so many people flock to see the celebrities – these animals are so ridiculously cool! Sarah M. Smith, a member of the Facebook Alberta Bird Group, gave me permission to share a screen capture describing her experience with the Northern Pygmy Owl.
I found this post just as inspiring as the smiling woman. Appreciation is such a powerful force for our wild animals, and the more people get a chance to see them in real-life, the more they appreciate them. And they go on and spread that appreciation to others – it’s an immeasurable ripple effect.
I’m not saying this positive aspect out-weighs the potential negatives of wildlife celebrity-ism. I have no idea. I don’t think anyone can know for sure – there are far too many variables. And I think it is important for those who have experience and knowledge to inspire others to be conscious of their impact when viewing/photographing wildlife. All I’m saying is there is another side, and I for one try to be a ‘glass half full’ kind of gal so I will continue to focus on the positive.
Until next time, continue loving life and all things wild 🙂