Approaching Wildlife

Bob McKain’s great shot You don’t belong here and his noticing signs of stress and excellent decision to back off and some of the comments made there about approaching wildlife got me thinking about some wildlife situations I’ve witnessed and heard about, particularly in some State Parks & National Parks.

I spend a lot of time in Rocky Mountain State Park (RMNP) in Colorado, and other National Parks and State Parks, and I get to witness a lot of truly dangerous behavior that people display around wildlife. People seem to treat even mega-fauna as tame animals in a petting zoo.

Some of my favorite quotes overheard or questions asked to rangers:

“They wouldn’t let it (the bear/moose/elk/etc.) live here if it was dangerous.”

“It’s not dangerous – this is a national park.”

“Let’s go take a picture with it.”

“They’re so used to people they’re not dangerous.”

“What time do you feed the elk?”

“Where do you keep the bears?”

“When do the deer turn into elk?”

“Where can we buy food to feed the elk?”

The only thing that keeps these quotes from being hilariously funny are the tragic consequences when people don’t treat wildlife with the respect it deserves.

The National Park Service site has a page of videos including of wildlife attacking people that treated them with little respect and approached too closely. It’s frightening to witness these attacks.

I’ve been a witness to at least two incidents of people in RMNP approaching elk to take a picture – one person was going to place their child on the back of one for a picture! I find myself regularly cautioning people not to approach the animals, and I’m always surprised when people either ignore me or give me a rude response. It’s gotten to the point that I’m almost more concerned for the welfare of the animals rather than the people, because it’s also the animals that will suffer the negative consequences of the interaction with people.

Without trying to be on a soapbox too much or pretend that I’m more of an authority on wildlife than I actually am, allow me to humbly make a few suggestions.

1. Become familiar with the species you are photographing, and learn the signs of distress to inform you that it’s time to back off. There’s an excellent article here on signs of wildlife stress.

2. Develop and respect a system of ethical treatment of wildlife and its environment. The Nature Photographers Network (NPN) has Code of Conduct, and the North American Nature Photography Association has Principles of Ethical Field Practice

I hope I haven’t come off too preachy – that was not my intention. As photographers, I think we share a role as stewards, ambassadors, and protectors for our subjects and their environment. If we can help others less experienced and educated in these subjects and environments, we make it a better experience for everyone involved.

Approaching Wildlife

Jay Ryser

Lakewood, United States

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