Popular, But Unethical Wildlife Photography

Mon Oct 09 2017

Getting striking wildlife images is painstaking, hard, patient work. There are many reasons for this, of course. Wildlife are unpredictable - contrary to some belief, the ranger does not let them out of a cage at a certain time for public viewing. Their ranges can be wide and in difficult terrain, making access to them challenging. It takes time to learn about their habitat and behavior to understand when to photograph them, how to approach them, how to read their behavioral cues. In many ways, in order to be a wildlife photographer, you have to be a naturalist.

The act of photographing wildlife can be very stressful on the animal. In many cases, wildlife do not like to be noticed, let alone followed by a large creature with a big tripod and lens. That is why the North American Nature Photography Association has adopted ethical guidelines to aid nature photographers in their pursuit of stunning wildlife images.

But, apparently, there are no such guiding principles for photographers in Finland. Enter Konsta Punkka, the self-proclaimed "Squirrel Whisperer" (it's what he calls himself on his Instagram account). As he describes to Bored Panda, he actually likes to show the act of feeding the animals in his images because it shows that he has established trust with the animal. His images have led for him to become an "Instagram sensation" (he has a million followers).

But he is not the only one known as a "Squirrel Whisperer." There is also Mary Krupa of Penn State University, who became an "Internet celebrity" in 2012 as a result of posting photos of squirrels posed wearing hats and cute outfits. Four years later, as she was graduating from college, she was still at it, and getting lots of "likes" on Facebook (some 43,000). Diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, her ability to interact with the squirrels helped to develop her socialization skills. And her start in the practice of photographing costumed squirrels came at a dark time for Penn State students - right after the exposure of the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal.

In both cases, there is something I can definitely relate to. When I am photographing wildlife, I want to develop a connection to the animal. Fleeting encounters may produce some good photos, but they are not as meaningful as when you have the chance to spend twenty, thirty minutes, or even hours, with a single animal. You start to get a sense of the individual. And if that animal is at a location you photograph routinely over the years, you develop a long term relationship. It adds a deeper meaning and satisfaction to the photos.

And for Ms. Krupa, she gained additional benefit in that it helped her Asperger's. The squirrel was not likely harmed, as it is a squirrel on a college campus. That is about as habituated as you can get as a wild animal. Her actions likely did not alter the squirrels' behavior or cause any problems for it.

My concern is the message, and how widely that message is sent through social media. Not everyone may have the very sincere motivations and benign approach that Ms. Krupa had with her squirrel. Rather, they might see how much attention she has gathered, or Mr. Punkka with his million Instagram followers. Modern photography is increasingly less about the art and the hard work of building a business and more about social reach - how many likes, shares, comments and fans one can gain, and how quickly. And it is very possible that someone seeking that "fame" could see these as examples to follow.

The likelihood is that potential widespread, unethical exploitation of wildlife - even urban wildlife - could have grave consequences for the animals that are subjects of such photos. It could harm the animal through creating food dependence and minimizing or eliminating fear of humans (which, for most animals, is not a good thing). This could have widespread effects through that animal's immediate family and beyond, causing loss of skills and increased dependency.

And, quite frankly, it diminishes the photographer, reducing wildlife photography to the equivalent of driving up to the national park pullout, taking a quick snap shot with the iPhone, and moving on to the next pullout. There is no sense of connection, of appreciation, of understanding that comes with spending time with the animal, or with studying the landscape to see out its features. Photography shouldn't be about the quick fix or fame. Unfortunately, the media feeds into the frenzy by popularizing such behavior.

I am glad that Ms. Krupa found an outlet that made her and her classmates happy, and perhaps made a squirrel happy. I just do not want to see anyone replicate her actions, because the aggregate could be disastrous. And Mr. Punkka's behavior certainly needs to be openly condemned, rather than celebrated.

Arctic Ground Squirrel, Hatcher Pass