Why Feeding Wildlife for the Sake of a Photo is Harmful

Are those photos on social media ethically created?

By: Imogene Davis
November 22, 2016

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We've all seen them: glorious shots of wildlife, up close, unfiltered, and sometimes so proximal to the lens that the viewer could almost reach out and touch the animal. Sometimes these shots include the hand of the photographer, a wild animal perched upon his or her hand, or gently taking offered food, frozen forever in what seems to be a peaceful exchange. Unfortunately, these photos endanger wildlife.

At the center of great wildlife photography is a mindfulness of the welfare of the subject. However, many photographers disagree on the ethics of wildlife photography. Is baiting okay? Why is feeding a hungry animal a bad thing? If the exchange was peaceful, isn't the photo encouraging human appreciation of wildlife? Unfortunately, many photographers unknowingly engage in activities that harm their subjects. In response to these questions, as well as the rise of human-wildlife interactions for photography on social media, here are the ways this type of photography is harmful to wildlife.

1. Baiting wildlife for photos 

Laying out food to encourage an animal's presence can negatively impact wildlife by altering their natural movement behaviors. Most wild animals spend a large portion of their time foraging or hunting, and as such are hugely opportunistic. A food opportunity that involves little energetic expenditure (i.e., they don't have to do much to find or access it) is a huge reward in terms of survival, and animals will very quickly learn to associate where and how they can benefit from a food source. By baiting any location with food, we override an animal's instinct to adhere to territory markings, be aware of signs of predators, and we change wild behavior by encouraging an animal to enter an area for human-created reasons. As a result, animals are more likely to be predated upon, have negative encounters with conspecifics (members of the same species), or cross roads and hostile habitat in an effort to access the food. Even one baiting activity can have a negative impact.

2. Feeding 

We often hear the term "a fed bear is a dead bear," but this is true for all wildlife, from birds to rodents to reptiles. Feeding wild animals enforces that easy meals can be obtained from humans. This problem is twofold. First, when the human food source disappears, the animal may later face the consequences of spending less time on nutrient-appropriate food sources. By feeding a wild animal anything other than its natural diet, we alter their metabolism and interfere with their use of energy for maintenance and survival. (potato chips, for example, are high fat and high salt- too much for the liver of a rodent to handle. Bread causes angel wing in waterfowl, and many seeds and nuts are nutritionally wrong for many species) Equally important: wildlife that are habituated to humans are more likely to wander into human-populated areas in search of food, which increases the likelihood that they are accidentally or intentionally killed, taken as a pet, or injured. 

12 Adventures with Amazing Wildlife | Photo: Ryan Mckinney

3. Using lure calls 

Calling wildlife into an area for a photo can disturb an animal in a myriad of ways. It can cause a nesting parent to unnecessarily leave a nest or young, generate stress through unnecessary exertion by searching for the source of the call, or increase the risk of predation by also calling in a predator. These increase the likelihood of injury or mortality, or threatens the success of young, and the safety and health of individuals.

4. Sharing animal locations

Social media and instant messaging, including GPS-tagged cell phone photos, can be detrimental to wildlife. Sharing the location of a wild animal can generate a crowd, which can result in harassment of an animal. This can interrupt nesting, breeding, feeding, and safety, all of which stress wildlife and may introduce them to injury or mortality sources they would not have encountered otherwise. This is especially harmful to sensitive and endangered species, whether they are in national parks or our back yards.

Wildlife photography encourages us to develop affinities for wild things and wild places, and it can also be hugely beneficial to conservation. Negatively impacting local populations for photos, however, is bad for wildlife wellbeing. As a result, many wildlife photographers adhere to specific ethics and guidelines in their efforts in order to mitigate the negative impacts on their presence. While some photographers feel that hand-feeding, catching, or baiting wildlife is not unethical, these actions do have ecological consequences that are not based on opinion. It boils down to this: wildlife do better when we don’t interact with them, and more often than not, our good intentions have adverse impacts that are more important than accolades or likes on social media.

Fortunately, we don’t need to interact with wildlife to get amazing, ethical shots. Patience, respect, and knowledge of the ecology of the study species results in safe, beautiful photography. If you are interested in wildlife photography, consider checking out National Geographic’s tips on photographing animals in the wild. If you see photos online that encourage this behavior, take the time to politely share how these interactions can endanger the animal, and give your support to photographers who are vocal about limiting their impact and interactions with wildlife.

Author's note: many do not consider backyard bird feeders to be unethical as long as the feeders are clean and a nutrient-dense, appropriate food source is provided. 

Cover Photo: Chase Dekker

Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.