Wildlife Fauxtography

By Ted Williams

I’m disgusted with American journalism. It’s boring. I blame editors for assigning uninteresting stories, and people interviewed for being evasive. So, for a modest fee, I provide journalists with stories that could have happened and quotes that should have been uttered. Contact me at Customfacts.org.

None of the above is true. But if it got your attention, recall that in most forms of journalism, lies are frowned upon.

Not so with wildlife photojournalism. Liars dominate. This galls me because I work with so many honest wildlife photographers who spend months getting shots the liars get in an hour.

Consider the story from Finland, viral in the U.S. and Europe with 759,000 page views, of a wild wolf and brown bear that constantly nuzzle each other. “Unusual Friendship,” understates one title. “No one can know exactly why or how the young wolf and bear became friends,” the photographer told the Daily Mail.

One person knows. That would be Melissa Groo, a soaring star in honest wildlife photojournalism, who co-chairs the International League of Conservation Photographers’ Ethics Committee. “There’s a huge business now in northern Europe baiting these animals (often with dog food) for photographers,” she says. “I can’t even look at photos of these animals from Finland anymore.”

Then there’s the epic “wolf-grizzly brawl” over blood-stained snow in Montana documented by a “nature photographer.” The story was first reported by the Sun and Daily Mail, then recycled 11,000 times on both sides of the Atlantic. The photos are stunning.

The blood issued from a planted deer carcass. The grizzly and wolves were tame actors, incarcerated by Animals of Montana, an “animal training service” known for animal abuse, including illegal wildlife trafficking and Endangered Species Act violations. Before 2021, when the state shut down Animals of Montana, it was patronized by some of the world’s most acclaimed “wildlife photographers.” Its website still exists.

Photo-game-farm animals “spend much of their lives in small cages with concrete floors and only enough space to turn around,” writes Groo in National Wildlife magazine. Some of these game farms, she learned from Freedom of Information requests, are analogs of “domestic puppy mills, breeding and selling wild animals such as wolvesfoxes, and lynxes.” Babies are taken from their mothers at early ages and sold to roadside zoos and exotic-pet dealers.

Twelve years ago, I considered an undercover visit to Animals of Montana. “Our grizzlies,” proclaimed its website, “will amaze you by running towards the camera, standing on command, snarling viciously, or posing cutely.” But the violations already on its record spooked me. If I had exposed this outfit, the game-farm industry would accuse me of cherry-picking.

So I tried Wild Eyes Photo Adventures in Columbia Falls, Montana. But it had been busted for violating the Animal Welfare Act.

Minnesota Wildlife Connection sounded interesting. But it had sold its tame black bear Cubby for $4,650 to country music star Troy Gentry, who then illegally “hunted” and killed Cubby inside his pen.

Finally, I settled on Triple D Wildlife in Kalispell, Montana. (This was before the USDA cited it for sundry abuses including “dead flies and floating debris” in water bowls, “excessive accumulation of excreta and animal food waste in the animal enclosures,” “excessive accumulation and buildup of dirt, grime, fur, and urine,” along with declawing a tiger cub.)

I “rented” a tiny Triple D cougar named Jewel. By the time the trainer had driven us to a scenic set, the day had warmed to minus 16 Fahrenheit. Jewel, unaccustomed to the wild, raised and shook each paw the way my cat Moop did the time she stepped in turpentine.

Jewel swatted photogenically at the deer-hair toy dangled in front of her by the trainer. He had to carry her back to the truck. Still, this had probably been the high point in Jewel’s dreary day.

I felt bad for the wolves who spent most of their lives in a dark, dank enclosure. When I sprang Big John and Lakota from Triple D for a “photoshoot,” the other 15 wolves cried. Big John and Lakota reveled in their brief freedom, fielding beef treats thrown by the trainer whenever they leaped over logs or pretended to snarl viciously. After his romp, Big John rolled on his back for a belly rub.

“You couldn’t have gotten those shots in the wild,” Triple D co-owner Jay Deist declared angrily after I’d asked questions not to his liking.

He was right.

Ted Williams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He writes about fish and wildlife and serves as National Chair of the Native Fish Coalition.

This column was published in the following newspapers:

04/19/2022 Vail Daily Vail CO
04/19/2022 Aspen Daily News Aspen CO
04/18/2022 Adventure Journal CA
04/18/2022 Carlsbad Current-Argus Carsbad NM
04/19/2022 Alamogordo Daily News Alamogordo NM
04/19/2022 Lake Powell Chronicle Page AZ
04/18/2022 Beaverton Valley Times Beaverton OR
04/18/2022 Tigard Times Tigard OR
04/18/2022 Forest Grove News Times Forest Grove OR
04/18/2022 Hillsboro Times News Hillsboros OR
04/18/2022 Columbia County Spotlight Scappose OR
04/19/2022 Montana Standard Butte MT
04/22/2022 Gallup Independent Gallup NM
04/20/2022 Las Vegas Sun Las Vegas NV
04/21/2022 Moab Times Independent Moab UT
04/19/2022 Montrose Daily Press Montrose CO
04/19/2022 Whitehall Ledger Whitehall MT
04/19/2022 Steamboat Pilot Steamboat Springs CO
04/19/2022 Craig Daily Press Craig co
04/19/2022 Kingman Daily Miner Kingman AZ
04/20/2022 Missoulian Missoula Montana
04/22/2022 Logan Herald Journal Logan UT
04/20/2022 Montana Standard Butte MT
04/24/2022 Bandon Western World Bandon OR
04/18/2022 Ruidoso Daily News Ruidoso New Mexico
04/20/2022 Delta County Independent Delta CO
04/21/2022 Park Record Park City UT
04/29/2022 Frontiersman Ma-tsu Velly AK
04/19/2022 Twin Falls Times News Twin Falls ID
04/29/2022 Moscow-Pullmand Daily News Moscow-Pullman ID
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Heather McManus
3 months ago

The extent that some people try to “capture” nature is truly ironic. This article breaks through the hard surface of how people justify certain ways of interacting with wildlife. Well written and highlights a much deeper issue.

Kay
3 months ago

This isn’t the first time I’ve read such abuses. The abuse is sickening and heartbreaking.

Jock Conyngham
3 months ago

The ugly face of commercialism shows itself once again. Free market economics (or our facsimile thereof) have brought some wonderful things (e.g., high employment and affordable food), but ethics and resource protection are not among them.

Anne
3 months ago

I have been horrified in the past when reading about rural Chinese wildlife farming, which has been used to supposedly supply wildlife products in a “sustainable” way and which is very abusive to wildlife as well as dangerous to human and animal health.

Now I am horrified again, this time about abusive, neglectful, and deceptive wildlife practices being allowed in other countries. It’s infuriating, though not surprising, that one of those countries is my own. How ironic to name that poor wolf “Lakota.”

Graham Gerdeman
3 months ago

Heck yeah. Great article. Thanks for your passion and vigilance. As I’m sure you know, whatever the lies are in actual wildlife photojournalism, the world of social media is exponentially higher. One has to suppose it is all the clients of these places who have no other place to publish. I can hardly even look at Instagram anymore because of the fake ass “wildlife” photos that I’m constantly fed (because I post wildlife photos, so .. algorithm. I just want to see everyone else’s).

Blair Frank
3 months ago

It’s shocking to think of how low humans have sunk. I am encouraged by your words making it known.

Cora Moore
3 months ago

“I’m disgusted with American journalism. It’s boring. I blame editors for assigning uninteresting stories, and people interviewed for being evasive.” IMHO, This IS True!

Dave Marston
3 months ago

Jay and Kim Deist (Triple D) fight back, denying abuse — although in doing so they spin more lies. We stand behind Williams and his facts, which are verifiable by any simple Google search, “Triple D Deist USDA.” “https://mtstandard.com/opinion/letters/catchy-title-misleading-redux/article_e1e7afba-5bac-533c-ac5a-c5ee91e9b4fc.html

Melissa Groo
1 month ago
Reply to  Dave Marston

Thank you Dave. And thank you Ted Williams.

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