In the popular movie, “For Love Of The Game,” starring Kevin Costner and Kelly Preston, an aging major league baseball pitcher makes the gut-wrenching decision to retire from the game of baseball. The title of the movie reflects the pitcher’s response to the club owner regarding his decision. He walks away because he cares too much about the game to stay on beyond his time. A recent event in the Grand Teton National Park, the area where my wife, Tanya, and I recently vacationed, reminded me of the sentiment behind this movie title.
Authorities in Grand Teton National Park reported that crowds encroaching on the space of a cow moose and her calf in a camping area got too close for comfort. “Mother Moose,” as I call her, had to deal with the unwanted attention of an approaching crowd, a bull moose with love on his mind, and concerns for the safety of her calf. In her anxiety, Mother Moose jumped over a picnic table and severely injured her leg on a fire pit grate, which resulted in the park rangers having to euthanize her. The prospects of her calf surviving the winter without its mother appear dim.
Since this story was first reported, however, a different narrative has surfaced: the photographers were not responsible for the tragedy, but rather the moose may have been suffering from eye problems (visible in some of the close-up photos) which impaired her vision. We have likely to hear more regarding this story in the coming days. Regardless of the specific cause of this tragedy, it is worth giving some consideration to our own behavior when photographing wildlife and whether we are acting in the best interests of the animals – or not…
1) The Thrill Of The Shot
During our recent vacation in Jackson (including Grand Teton National Park) and Yellowstone National Park, we saw a number of people get far too close to one of the area’s more popular moose. While I was deeply saddened by the story above, I was not surprised at the initial reports blaming a crowd of photographers. We saw people in Jackson who just about ran after some animals in their pursuit of a photo, some with iPads that had keyboards swinging wildly below.
And since we left the area, the Park Rangers also closed Moose-Wilson Road, that popular stretch of dirt road that leads from the entrance to Grand Teton National Park to the Teton Village ski resort due to continual traffic jams resulting from people attempting to capture photos of grizzly bear #760, who took up residence in the area to feed on chokecherries. Apparently some people got a bit too close to the animal, causing it to become visibly aggravated and forcing the Park Rangers’ to close the road out of safety concerns for both the tourists and the bear.
Don’t get me wrong – I love the excitement of being close to wildlife as much as anyone. It can be a thrilling to be in presence of wildlife, particularly the bigger and rarely seen-in-person species. Add the attraction of a pup, cub, or calf, and the adrenaline is doubled. Somewhere in your head, that little voice kicks in saying, “If you can just get closer, you can capture a much better shot!” This is particularly true of those I affectionately call “the point and shoot city slicker crowd (although some of which clearly have DSLRs) – those who probably do not spend much time around wildlife and are usually quite a bit more excitable faced with the opportunity to be so close in proximity to big game. They throw caution to the wind and proceed as if there are no potential consequences to their behavior.
Most of the parks publish guidelines regarding “safe” distances from various wildlife species. When you come across wildlife in our national parks or even in your local woods, you are not likely to encounter a park ranger. Therefore you have to assume responsibility and be mindful of not only the danger the animals may represent to your safety, but the danger you may represent to the animal. Most people think of the former, but not the latter.
In the case of poor Mother Moose, the camera-wielding crowd may or may not have been the cause of her injury. But speaking from firsthand experience (as the picture above shows) in the Grand Teton area, I can vouch for the fact that we saw more than a few people acting inappropriately and not giving proper consideration and respect to the animal(s) they were photographing. This picture was taken a less than two months ago, a few miles from the location of the incident involving Mother Moose.
2) Sometimes You Have To Know When To Walk Away
In our neighborhood, we have a beautiful 630 acre park, that features a dog park, concert amphitheater, jogging trails, bike trails, and a stately mansion built in the 1920s. Because the park resides in the suburbs, it has become a bit of a wildlife sanctuary. The extensive deer population, having such regular non-threatening contact with the public (hunting was not allowed), has become very comfortable being in relatively close proximity to people. People carry corn in their pockets and feed the deer during the winter months. Even the park’s maintenance staff put bales of hay out when the snow was deep and the deer were struggling for food.
When I got back into photography, I made it a regular habit to bring some corn out on my winter sojourns with my long lenses. I would go out in my camouflage clothing and camera backpack. After many early morning visits over a few years, a few generations of deer became fairly comfortable and used to my presence. I got so close to many that I could tell them apart by the various differences of facial shapes, white markings, and other qualities and even had nicknames for some of them.
One day, I saw a beautiful young doe I named “Almond Eyes,” for her unusually large and distinctively angled eyes, running toward me. I immediately looked behind her to see if a dog or a buck was chasing her. But there was nothing and no one behind her. She had simply recognized me and sprinted up to within ten feet, likely waiting for me to toss out a few handfuls of corn. On another occasion, I had to back up from a doe, since she was too close for the minimum focusing distance of my Nikon 70-300mm lens (4.9 feet). My wife teases me that the deer were only friendly to me because of the food, but I like to think that the corn was just an added benefit to my company!
Then one day, I heard through the grapevine that the county park officials intended to let certified bowhunters into the park to help trim the deer population. My heart sank. It was not because I was against hunting. Nor was it because I disagreed with the need to keep the deer population in check. The thought of my friends ending up on someone’s dinner table certainly wasn’t comforting, but I was also well-aware of the ravages of disease and starvation mother nature could unleash when animal populations outgrew the available food sources.
What bothered me most was the vision of my animal friends literally walking, without fear, directly up to someone else dressed in camouflage and wearing a backpack, only he/she would be carrying a compound bow or crossbow. At this moment, I realized that I had to start spending less time around my friends and let them regain a bit more of their natural fear of man. I recognized that this action probably wasn’t going to do much to enhance my wildlife photography, but at least my four legged friends might become a bit less friendly to the area bowhunters. Although I still photograph the deer, and even sneak them a handful of corn on occasion, I realized that keeping my distance, especially in the six months prior to archery season, was ultimately the right thing to do for the deer.
3) The Park Rangers – Killjoys?
I don’t envy the Park Rangers – they have difficult jobs. On one hand, they seek to educate the public and promote the use of our national parks. More visitors mean more funds for the park system and garner more public support for legislation that provides additional money for park maintenance and improvements. On the other hand, they have to tell little Johnny to get down off the railing that borders the waterfall, inform Mr. Smith that he can’t feed the bear through the driver side window of his Ford Explorer, and act as traffic cops to keep people moving after they block the roads in both directions to take pictures of an elk that happened to take a rest twenty feet from the road.
The Park Rangers in the Grand Teton area have been taking quite a bit of flack as of late, over both the bear and moose incidents. They have deal with everyone from the seasoned wildlife photographer who is likely in lockstep with their belief system and respect for wildlife, to the city family whose only experience with wildlife has been watching the National Geographic Channel, and everyone in between. Many of the people who visit the parks are well-behaved and considerate of the environment and the local wildlife. But I am sure every Park Ranger could regale us with tales of “People Behaving Badly Around Animals” and the results that follow. Many stories likely end on a humorous note. And others probably have far more tragic endings.
Each of the Park Rangers we have met has been respectful and helpful to us along our journeys. They spend long hours in our national parks and know the area and wildlife better than most. When you are in a situation that warrants their attention, it is best to heed their advice and cut them some slack, since they are there to protect you, the wildlife, and the park lands. We all know that if someone gets injured or killed by an animal, there will be cries that the Park Rangers “should have done more” to prevent the tragedy.
4) Some Tips For Photographing Wildlife In National Parks
4.1) Investigate Your Vacation Destination
In the internet age, it is easier than ever to familiarize yourself with the park you plan to visit. The Grand Teton National Park’s website is a good example of the wealth of information available for planning your trip. Some park sites feature up-to-date wildlife sightings. Others even have webcams you can view from the comfort of your home. Take advantage of these resources.
4.2) Get To Know Your Wildlife
Take some time to ensure you understand the wildlife you may encounter and their habits. Once again, the internet provides an abundant supply of information, particularly related to animal behavior. Had those people in the cover photo done a bit of research, they might not have walked up to 20 feet of a moose at the beginning of the rut. If you need help understanding the habits of moose, watch this video. Hint: The time to realize that you missed the telltale signs of a bull moose getting ready to charge is not seconds before his antlers lift you clean off your feet.
4.3) Desperately Seeking A Close-Up
Unless you have a 300mm (DX) or 400mm (FX) lens, you are going to have to get far too close for comfort if you plan to photograph animals such as moose and bear. Even at these focal lengths you are going to have to crop a bit to get a useful photo. If you really have your heart set on a close-up wildlife shot, consider buying one of the economical superzoom camera/lens combinations such as the Canon Powershot SX520 or Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ70 Digital Camera.
These superzoom cameras may not compete with the detail of a Nikon D810 or the low-light performance of the Canon 5DM III, but you can’t beat them for pure focal length and cost. At a minimum, they will keep you and the wildlife at a safe distance from one another.
4.4) When In Doubt – Backup And Keep Your Distance
Do not take it for granted that an animal standing still as you approach does not feel threatened. This is especially true in during the rut, or mating season, that takes place in the September and October, but can start a bit earlier in higher elevations. Give the animals plenty of room and keep a safe distance. That is for their safety as much as it is for yours.
Never attempt to get close to an animal when it is just off a busy roadway, since the animal may bolt in the direction of traffic. In most of the national parks, once an animal is spotted, traffic in both directions usually slows to a crawl and often comes to a complete standstill. But there are many environments, such as Route 89 near Jackson, WY, where an overzealous photographer could easily pursue a moose, pronghorn antelope, bison, or mule deer only to have it sprint in the direction of speeding traffic.
The national parks represent a wonderful resource that we should all appreciate, respect, and enjoy. With such a treasure, however, comes responsibility. No person’s or animal’s life is worth the cost of a photo. The facts associated with the Grand Teton National Park incident are clearly in question and it may be some time until we know for certain what happened that day. In the meantime, we should all ask ourselves whether we care enough about wildlife to recognize when it is time to walk away or at least back up to a safe distance.