Photographing animals in captivity has long been a controversial topic. It’s hard for it not to be, seeing as keeping animals in captivity at all is so highly disputed.
Recently I won my first national competition. I won the Mammal Societies Wildlife Comedy Photograph of the year. My prize (as well as meeting Simon King) was to spend a day in Devon at a specially designed, wildlife photography centre.
They had a wide variety of captive British species. All seemed to be very well kept, with plenty of thought put into space, enrichment and other needs. This seemed the perfect oportunity to learn about the pro’s and con’s of photographing animals in captivity…
When I arrived, I was asked what I wanted to photograph, and we went from there. Of course, the first one I went with was the utterly iconic, otter! Otters, as well as being incredibly charismatic, are frustratingly difficult to see in the wild in the UK. Predictably, this is down to humans.
Habitat destruction, organochlorine pesticides and otter hunts being the key contributing factors. The later was so widely enjoyed and encouraged that it lead to the breeding of a species of dog called the otterhound, for that sole purpose.
Thankfully they are making a comeback, though they are still tricky to catch even a glimpse of, so I took this opportunity with both hands.
As the keeper was throwing the food into roughly the same area, I was able to spot a pattern and get myself in a prime position to get the shot you see below.
Next on the list was debateably, the even more ellusive, Polecat. I have to say, you really do learn something new every day. Ferrets, so im relieably told, are domesticated polecats. Who knew?
Another useful piece of information i picked up is not to feed a Polecat the morning you wish to photograph it. Othewise sleep, very much becomes the overiding desire. Thankfully, i was able to get this shot of the reluctant model just before he (Pongo) decided to curl up for an afternoon nap.
Next on the list was a real bucket list animal! The almost etheral, but leathal, Pine Marten! This animal is another that has been cruely eliminated from most of the british isles. About the size of an elongated cat, they move through the trees with almost unbelieveable ease and stealth.
Those familiar with the problems caused by the invasive grey squirrels in the UK should be even more excited to learn this particular animal may be the key to restoring our red squirrels to their former glory.
Pine marten are extremely effective squirrel hunters. In the UK they had evolved to hunt the very delicate and nimbal red squirrels, which themselves had evolved to be just that in order to reach more fragile branches and increase their chances of escaping predators.
Sadly, by the time the grey squirrels were introduced, the pine marten were long gone from most of the UK (yes, us humans again). This meant the slower, but bigger and tougher grey’s were able to dominate the competition with the red’s for food and habitat. This eventually lead to them being pushed out of most of England and Wales, with only a few small isolated populations surviving.
Fast forward to now and we have the comeback of pine marten just begining. Thanks in part, to the pine parten equivilant of an all you can eat buffet in the form of the slow and comparitively fat greys. As they are choosing to catch the greys over the reds, the reds are follwing only slightly behind the pine marten in their reclaiming of their former range thanks to a lack of grey squirrels! Slowly, the balance is being restored!
From an animal thats helping to restore the natural balance in the british eco-systems to one that is one of the biggest reasons for its historical upset.
The american mink was bought over from America in order to provide fur for the fashion industry.
Inevitably, some broke out from the farms and began to quite simply decimate populations of rodents such as the water vole. Regretably they are now captured using traps called mink rafts and killed in order to try and restore britains river banks to the bussling eco-system they once were.
As i was photographing them i couldnt help but notice the fur, for which they are so famous. I am lucky enough to have seen a very wide variety of animals in my life, thanks in no small part to places that keep animals in captivity, such as zoos. I have to say, I found the fur of this particular species to be distractingly thick and glossy.
They were incredibly curious, running riot around my feet. It was quite a wierd feeling, i was drawn to them and found their innocence endearing. Conversely, I found myself feeling a little bit guilty for liking them. I had been taught so much about the harm they cause, I had lost sight of the fact they were a perfectly normal animal, just in an abnormal habitat. I have to say, their energy made them a real struggle to photograph, but i did manage to come away with this in the end.
We then moved on to another controversial animal. At this point, it strikes me that a lot of british species seem to have controvesy surrounding them or their history, and never through any fault of their own…
This shot was achieved by having the keeper throw the food into the waters edge. After a few attempts i got the timing right so that the foxes face was touching the reflection.
As i was photographing all these amazing species i was conflicted. Ofcourse it was amazing to be up close with these incredbile creatures, but at the same time i was fully aware it was all staged. It wasnt quite the same as when you see your first of each in the wild. The experience was a little tainted…
After the fox we moved onto possibly… no, certainly, my faveourite british animal! The stoat! I have been fortunate enough to see two in the wild, each sighting was fleeting yet exillerating. They are such fascinating animals, appearing to live their lives at one hundred miles an hour, they’re incredibly efficient and smart hunters, all the time appearing cute and cuddly to the untrained eye.
Because their don’t judge a book by it’s cover persona, I came away most proud of this shot. I took this with a macro lens, manually fousing just infront of the pipe so that i would capture its eyes as it came flying out.
Last but definitely not least, a favourite amongst the “aww” crowd. The harvest mice. These really were a challenge to photograph. They were small, shy and fast. Not the best combination for photography. But they seemed quite calm and it was the end of the day so i had time to play with a variety of compositions and come away with a couple of photos i was happy with.
So, at the end of the day, how do i think photographing animals in captivity compares to the wild, and what are the pro’s and con’s from a photographic point of view (i will leave the captivty debate in general for another day as it’s so complex).
First of all, i think its worth pointing out there is nothing like photographing an animal in the wild, the feeling of capturing something that you have almost no controll over and that has been left exactly as you found it, untouched. The feeling you get being able to walk away having captured an undisrupted moment in time for all to see. Not to mention that from a photographers point of view, a photo of a wild animal holds much more merit than one that is captive.
And of course there are all the negatives that come with photographing animals in captivity. The animal rights issues which will always be in the forefront of your mind, your photos will be discredited by many people straight away, regardless of any amount of time, visual appeal or technical merit involved. However…
If I were to give my honest opinion, I would quite like to champion captive photography. Every time someone goes to a zoo instead of the wild, that is one more animal left in peace. Then there are the technical advantages, trying out techniques and photographing certain animals in captivity teaches you what works and what doesn’t. Consequently, your success rate when you do get those few seconds in the wild, is likely to be a lot higher.
Though, I did say I’d like to champion it…
Recently I tried to make some content regarding this topic, involving a facility i used to hold in high esteem when it comes to animal welfare. Sadly, for reasons I cannot discuss, I now do not hold it in any esteem whatsoever. Though what I will say is I was told that captivity was not controversial and that ecologists working there saw animals raised in captivity as being a different species and so had different needs. For me, that is an incredibly worrying statement.
It has left me wondering about what really goes on behind the scenes in any kind of establishment where animals are kept. Having spoken to a large number of people on Instagram about this topic I have found more worrying stories. Students being told to change the topic of their research because they found a flagship zoo species to be suffering, eggs of animals being chucked in the bin because they couldnt be bothered to look after them.
My conclusion… there isn’t one really… Sorry about that.
This was going to be a blog pushing for more people to take advantage of photographing animals in captivity, so as to lessen the amount of disturbance in the wild. After all, that is a very real issue. Animals like owls have been recorded being chased by photographers to the point of starvation. All this does is damage the one thing we all love and gives wildlife photographers a bad name! Though after all that happened recently, I just don’t think I can promote photographing animals in captivity any more.
Feel free to comment on this blog (or my related instagram post) and let me know your thoughts on the matter.
On a positive note, my next blog will be about photographing small wading birds. A much lighter topic. Hopefully see you then if I havent just ruined your day…