Phony Wildlife Photography Gives a Warped View of Nature
The dark side of those wondrous wildlife photographs.
Audubon has sent me to lots of wild places over the past 31 years, but I’d seen only one wolf and three cougars (a litter) until December 8, 2009. On that day, before noon in the Glacier National Park ecosystem of northwestern Montana, I encountered not just one wolf but two and not just one cougar but two! What were the chances of that?
Well, they were 100 percent, because I’d rented the animals for a photo shoot. As a photographer I’ve done my best work with Kodak disposable cameras, so advertising photographer Andrew Geiger would do the shooting under my direction. By his own admission Geiger lacks the patience to be a wildlife photographer, but that was okay because our subjects weren’t wildlife. “Captive wildlife” is an oxymoron.
The “models,” as the industry calls them, were beautiful and healthy, though. At 8:30 a.m.—after a long sleep and a hot breakfast in the Triple D guest house equipped with kitchen, refrigerator, TV, living room, and gas-fueled fireplace—I was ready for my three hours in the field. Behind the Triple D office Geiger and I met our first model—Jewel, a little two-year-old cougar who paced and mewed behind the bars in the back of the truck. By the time trainer Logan Saich had driven us to the scenic set leased by Triple D, the day had warmed from minus 24 degrees Fahrenheit to minus 16.
Saich led Jewel to high ground, where she posed like Kate Moss against magnificent snow-clad peaks. Surprised by the snow and ice, she raised and shook each paw the way my cat Moop had done the time she stepped in turpentine. Jewel was coming into heat, so she chased her melon-sized plastic ball only halfheartedly and swatted none too ferociously at the deer-hair toy Saich dangled in front of her. Still, this was the high point in her dreary day. On our way down Saich had to carry her, and she grabbed the last fence post with both front paws. The strong bond between trainer and model was obvious. “Good girl, good girl,” Saich murmured when she let go. She purred when he scratched her behind the ears.
Back at the game farm, Attilli, the three-year-old cougar, performed better. He was obsessed with his ball, bounding over logs in pursuit and looking very fierce. Saich had difficulty prying it from his grasp. Once Saich rubbed leaves off Attilli’s nose to make him more photogenic. All too soon for Attilli he was back in his cage. Then came Big John, the black wolf, who saluted everything in sight because he was the alpha male. Behind us 17 other wolves started a baleful chorus. Big John placed his forepaws on a rock, as he’d been trained, and snapped up the beef-heart treat Saich threw to him. “Good boy!” exclaimed Saich, and Big John whirled around, put his paws back on the rock, and fielded another treat. Even more enthused with the romp and treats was Lakota, the cream-colored wolf. He dashed around the enclosure, looking wild and voracious, then rolled on his back for a belly rub.
“You couldn’t have gotten those shots in the wild,” Triple D co-owner Jay Deist told me, and he was right. In 1972 he, his brother, and his father opened Triple D, but not for photographers. They were “going to save the world” by capturing and breeding vanishing wildlife. It didn’t work out. But soon photographers began paying for sessions with the animals. Deist describes the early clientele as “very secretive, because they didn’t want anyone to know the source.” Concurrently, these amazing “wildlife photos” started showing up in magazines, calendars, and posters—close-up action shots with every whisker in perfect focus. Similar game farms sprang up around the country, though no one knows how many there are.