Two porcupines inspire a Master’s Project in ethical wildlife photography

Blobs in trees.

As a child, I always fantasized about observing and photographing wildlife when I grew up, but I never imagined I would become obsessed with examining blobs in trees.

This process is, however, essential to scanning the environment for wildlife photography opportunities. The blob could be an interesting bird, a pine marten, a bear, a squirrel, a cougar (I know, I dream big) or even a porcupine.

Thanks to the volume of porcupines that hang out in photograph-able positions in the poplar-filled forest of the Lethbridge river bottom, I have developed the ability to zone in on a porcupine in a tree from great distances.

There is something unique about the blobs formed by this tree-dwelling member of the rodent family – a meaty, dark center supports a mane of thin, straw-like quills that expand from the body like sparse bristles from a hair brush.

Distant porky (zoomed in)

As a child, I also never imagined photographing porcupines would help inspire the main project for my MA in Photography, an endeavour I began at the beginning of 2018. But I have learned to accept that spending time with wildlife inspires connection and creativity, so thanks to two porcupines named Ellie and Montgomery, I have narrowed down my project focus.

Ellie

In early April, 2018, I was visiting Lethbridge for Easter, and as I often do, decided to go for a ‘porky walk.’ I was happy to quickly find two porcupines active in trees, about 100 meters away from each other. I have photographed both of them before – one is a small, young porcupine (Ellie), and the other is large porcupine with a noticeable overbite and long, yellow teeth (Montgomery).

That afternoon, Ellie was very accommodating to my presence and movements around the base of her tree. She was aware of me, but did not appear to be too bothered – she continued navigating the network of branches with surprising grace, gnawing away at the sugary substance that resides within the thick bark.

Ellie

Montgomery, however, completely froze when I got within about 5 meters of his tree – he stopped chewing, stopped moving – just clung to the tree, trying not to be seen. Stillness appears to be a porcupine’s initial defense mechanism to threats (before the quills of course). Fortunately, I had the wherewithal to understand the impact of my presence and the need to back off.

Porcupines do not shoot quills, so I was safe, but I realized my presence interrupted his natural behavior. So, I backed off and sat on a fallen tree about 30 to 50 meters away.

I was treated to an amazing show as the large porcupine went about his business without my intrusive presence. This was the first time I had ever had a chance to observe a porcupine moving vertically up and down a tree.  I knew they were good climbers – they’d have to be – I just never realized how skillfully they use their crampon-like claws to navigate up and down the trunk of a tree. It was fascinating, and despite having to crop more than I like, I am very happy with the photos.

Montgomery

So how can two porcupines inspire a Master’s project? When I left them, I went through my usual process of examining my actions. I initially felt bad for getting too close to Montgomery, but as I evaluated my actions and the response of both porcupines, I realized how complex, nuanced and unique every single interaction with wildlife is. This got me thinking deeper…

My actions as a photographer of course will differ depending on the species. Obviously, I am never going to walk up to within 5 meters of a grizzly bear. We all know different species respond differently to human presence, but it is important to understand that individual members of a species act uniquely as well. Ellie was okay with me being closer to her tree, but Montgomery was not.

Perhaps this seems obvious – Montgomery appeared to be bothered so I backed away. This is a principle of ethical wildlife photography – if an animal seems stressed or bothered, back away –  but I have come to believe that the process of evaluating the subtle nuances of wildlife behavior and my impact as a photographer is anything but simple.

I have photographed porcupines many times before this instance, sometimes standing directly beneath them, interrupting their eating, likely causing at least some degree of stress or fear.  In fact, I photographed Montgomery before in this way in January.

However, because there was nothing ‘dramatic’ about his reaction to me, I simply was not overly-conscious of the implications of my presence.

An openness to learning from past mistakes and observations is the key to cultivating the depth of knowledge needed to guide low-impact wildlife photography. This subtle yet important process of conscious photography is the focus of my MA Photography project:

What are the ethical implications of photographing wildlife in terms of having minimal impact and maintaining the precarious balance of keeping wild animals wild?

There are many general guidelines and rules for ethical photography published by seasoned photographers and ecological organizations. It is absolutely essential for beginning photographers to research and understand such guidelines before embarking on their journey into wildlife photography. These guidelines, however, are not my focus.

I am interested in the intricacies of wildlife’s response to human presence. I am interested in exploring the middle ground between what is deemed ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in terms of ethical wildlife photography.  I am interested in exploring the notion of habituating wildlife.

Ultimately, I am interested in broadening the conversation around practices in wildlife photography, with the goal of expanding to the larger theme of balanced coexistence with wildlife in general.

There is so much polarization in the social, cultural and political discourse around human-wildlife interactions right now. Understandable? Absolutely – it is a complex and emotional subject that elicits strong opinions.

Is such divisiveness helpful in terms in inspiring conscious and respectful interaction with wildlife? I’m not sure.

At the heart of my inquiry is a core belief in the remarkable power of observing and photographing wildlife as a tool to spread appreciation for, and a desire to preserve, wildlife and their habitat.

The project will entail intense research with input from a number of professionals involved with wildlife, but also an element of personal reflection. In my last blog post, I started a series called Beyond the Photo. Here’s the first issue:

Beyond the photo: two left-over bohemian waxwings blow my mind

My plan is to continue this series with the purpose of my Master’s project in mind, focusing on the subtitles of behavior that guide my actions and the intense learning that can be absorbed with every encounter.

My recent experiences photographing river otters in Prince Albert National park, a skunk in northern Saskatchewan, a sharp-tailed grouse lek in Grasslands National Park and my first bear encounter of 2018 with Banff grizzly bear 136 will be highlighted.

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Until next time, continue loving life and everything wild 🙂

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