Friday, February 05, 2010

A captive view

This little darling is Rosie, a grizzly bear cub held at a private facility in Montana. She had just started training, but would let her handler know when she wasn’t happy, as this photo demonstrates. Check out the size of Rosie’s paws - by the time she is an adult, she will be one big bear.

In the course of a week, I watched that same young animal trainer Rosie chewed on get attacked by an irritated juvenile bobcat, and an adult Siberian tiger. When the tiger took him down, I dived behind the other humans there, behind two strands of electric wire. Never got any photos, but I made darn sure that I would be the last to be eaten (the tiger’s owner had several other protection measures in place, but I wasn’t taking any chances). The trainer wasn’t injured, but it demonstrated vividly just how dangerous it can be to work with wild animals. I also once watched a wildlife biologist get thumped by a wild elk calf (and got photos of that incident).

I met Rosie a couple of years ago when I did the rounds of some captive wildlife facilities in Idaho and Montana. I wanted see what it’s like to photograph animals at places that train animals for movies, documentaries and other media. What I learned is that while I can see the attraction, it’s really not my kind of scene. My wildlife shots on the ranch may not be technically perfect, but the interactions are what make the experience for me.

I did learn some fun insider information in my captive facility tour, like a “documentary” I watched on television included beautiful arctic wolves filmed as they ran across the frozen tundra, but in reality they were running across a frozen Idaho potato field. Two of the facilities I visited had what I considered to be dangerous adult male mountain lions (actually can’t imagine defining an adult captive tom as anything but dangerous). I'll post a few of the captive shots I like the best in the coming days, and I'll let you know that they are indeed captive animals.

While I don’t see much more of this kind of photography in my future, I can’t rule it out completely. The wild, elusive critter that is the subject of my dreams as a photography conquest is probably a common sight for many of you: a skunk. I would simply love the opportunity to follow around a mama skunk with her babies – an unfulfilled dream for the woman who lives surrounded by guardian dogs. I’ll keep dreaming the dream and it may happen someday, and I’ll probably smell the worse for it.


prairie mary said...

In the Sixties I was married to Bob Scriver who was both a sculptor and a taxidermist. One day I walked into the shop and he suddenly put into my arms a little bear about like Rosie. But it was dead. It had been shot out of a tree. No one was happy about it. It was like holding a human chld and I couldn't help the reflex of rocking it.

On another occasion he put his nearly grown pet badger into my arms that way. What a funny animal to hold! They are wide, flat, and solid muscle. It laughed at me -- truly. Big grin, lots of teeth, no aggression.

Skunks are pretty easy pets. They can be de-smelled. I impounded several pet skunks on the street when I was working animal control. Like cats.

Raccoons? Forget it.

Prairie Mary

PBurns said...

There is a very ugly side to some of the the "photography park" places you describe.

I detail what that is in this post >> but the secion on point is clipped out below.
_ _ _ _ _

Zoos routinely over-breed animals because tiger cubs and baby zebras boost attendance and generate profits. Cute baby animals quickly grow up, however, and that's a problem. It turns out that the world has more caged lions, tigers and zebras than it knows what to do with.

What to do? Answer: canned shooting preserves in Texas. It's not an accident that at one point nine board members of the San Antonio Zoo owned hunt preserves.

Not all exotic animals used in canned hunts come from large zoos. Many come from small zoos and private breeders of large exotic animals. If you have a checkbook in this country, you can buy anything from a lion to a bear, and from a bobcat to a gemsbok.

And if you have ever bought a wildife magazine with amazing shots of baby cougars, lynx, red fox, black bear and wolf, you are a small part of the problem. Most of those pictures were taken in private "photography zoos," and at least some of those baby animals were later sold, as adults, to canned hunts.

An example is as current as this morning's headlines:

"Country music star Troy Lee Gentry (one half of popular duo Montgomery Gentry) is facing charges for shooting a tame, captive bear and then trying to mask the killing as a proper hunt.... Indictment documents made public this week showed that Gentry paid $4,650 U.S. to kill a 'trophy-caliber' bear named Cubby. The incident took place two years ago at the Minnesota Wildlife Connection, a company that claims to offer photographers a chance to capture wild animals on film. ... Gentry killed the bear using a bow and arrow while the animal was in its pen."

_ _ _ _ _ _

I am NOT saying that's how all these animal end their lives, nor am I saying that is how it will go at the place you visited, but it is common enough.

The problem is that what photographers want to photograph are babies and easy-to-control animals. As adults get older, have less contact with humans, and get harder to control, they become a liability rather than asset. You cannot return these animals to the wild, but you can sell them off as a trophy. These places have to operate as a business and that is what they have to do, which is one reason some question whether they should be allowed to operate at all. At the very least they need regulation and tracking of animals. Some states require that, but many are quire lax.


Cat Urbigkit said...

I should clarify that the places I visited were not "photography parks" but were private businesses that trained animals for movies/photo shoots. One of the places I went is one of the best in the business.

In Montana, they are tightly regulated. In Idaho, I'm not sure. The private holding of wildlife species in Wyoming is prohibited. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department owns a wildlife research unit, where some wild animals are held in captivity (some were rescued/confiscated, while others came off the range for research) which I visited and photographed as well.

Matt Mullenix said...

Interesting pics and place, Cat.

On captive widlife: My falconry began by volunteering with a veterinarian and his wife who cared for various wild animals in Panama, generally young wild cats (margays, ocelots, courgars) and raptors given up by those who had acquired them (easily there, at that time) as pets.

Wild animals aren't for everyone---For that matter, many folks can't manage a dog! But I'd like to say that keeping the field open to those who can and wish to do so is vital to preserving an important human relationship. And by this I mean for laypeople---not just specialists, veterinarians, and others who are degreed or certified to the hilt.

Falconry is still highly regulated, of course, but thankfully, the regs are being scaled back by the federal govt. to something almost sensible and practical. The net result will be more opportunity for people with a passion for handling wildlife---hawks in our case---to enter the field and to operate in it with greater freedom. I'm looking forward to some of those freedoms myself, after 25 years working under the more restrictive system.

I don't know anything about raising or training large wild mammals and don't have immediate plans to take that on. But I'm glad to know it can still be done and hasn't yet been regulated beyond the reach of everyone who might want to pursue it.