Should Artists Go To Game Ranches To Shoot Reference?

Every artist and photographer will have to decide for themselves.  For me, after having been to two of game ranches and having been involved in animal welfare and rescue for the past four years, the answer is “no”.

I do want to make the point, as did Mangelsen, that I am specifically addressing game ranches; not zoos, reserves, sanctuaries or other places with wild animals which have vets and other staff trained in animal care and where the animals are not there for the purpose of “modeling” or “acting” for photographers or artists or to be used in movies, tv or advertising.

Here’s the link to a blog post in the new online publication, Wildlife Art Journal, in which Todd Wilkinson introduces an article by legendary wildlife photographer Thomas Mangelsen. Mangelsen pulls no punches and I applaud him for exposing to the light of day something that’s been hidden for too long: the price the animals pay so photographers and artists can get “that perfect shot”. For example:

baby-bearThis bear cub was allowed to repeatedly shock itself on the electric wire in order to “teach” it to stay within the enclosure. The cub cried in pain every time and is seen here licking the spot that touched the wire. The keeper also “cuffed”, as in hit, the cub to “discipline it the way a mother bear would”.  To my knowledge, the keeper had no formal training, certification or degree in animal behavior. This was in front of a number of artists, including me, and clearly the keeper had no problem with us seeing how the cub was being introduced to working with humans.

Is any painting or photograph worth being complicit in a fellow creature being treated this way?

UPDATE 6-17-09: I have just learned that the person who is referred to above no longer works for that game ranch. He was fired because of how he treated the animals. Very good news indeed.

Here’s the comment that I left for Mangelsen’s article, which is here:

Finally. It’s not just me who’s wondered….

Posted By Susan Fox on Jun 14, 2009

I’ve been to workshops at two of these places and came away very ambivalent since I am also involved in animal welfare (NOT PETA-style animal rights) and dog and cat rescue. Yes, I got some “great” photos, but the other 10-20 artists who were there got almost exactly the same image.

I’ve noticed a proliferation of cougar paintings over the past few years, which coincide with a whole bunch of artists going to shoots put on by one particular ranch. How big a market is there for cougar paintings? Especially when so many show the same animal on the same red rocks? Do cougars even live in that habitat? I dunno.

Part of what makes me and my art interesting to people (Read: potential buyers) are the stories behind the paintings. So, what do you think a buyer finds more compelling:

“I was at the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone and had set up my easel to paint, but ended up watching one wolf attempt to distract the bull bison who had taken up a defensive posture while a second tried to dart in and cut out a calf. After a half hour they gave it up and, all of a sudden six more wolves popped up out of the grass and they all trotted off “(true story)

“I photographed these two wolves splashing in the water and playing. One was the mother of the other, who was a young adult. No, I have no idea if one would see that interaction in the wild. I have no idea if wolves “play” in the water. I have no idea if they run around chasing each other like two crazy border collies.”
“The cute baby raccoon was brought out and inserted into a hole in a tree stump that was placed on a table.”
I did paint that one and have it available as a giclee. I described him and what he was doing accurately, but otherwise feel that I committed at least a sin of omission. And, when people ask me, as they often do, if or where I saw him in the wild, I tell the truth. I like the image, it was fun to paint, but it and another of a captive animal have become somewhat problematical for me.

I’ve made it a point to do the travel, study and fieldwork required to see wildlife where it lives and learn about a species’ behavior and how it interacts with its habitat. Taking pictures of captive animals I’ve never seen in the wild turns out to be useless to me in that regard. There is so very much more to painting animals than their surface appearance, however appealing.

One thing I always tell people is that I don’t paint what I haven’t seen. And, of course, I have seen the captive animals. But I’ve decided finally that that’s not good enough. Taken out of the context of their habitat ultimately ruins their value to me for reference, except as a supplement to what I would shoot of the real, wild versions. It’s a step better than buying someone else’s photographs to do finished paintings from (as opposed to reference for a detail of some kind), but not good enough for me anymore.

As far as my visits to two game ranches:

I remember seeing, briefly, the cages, one that had an adult snow leopard in it. It was a quarter of the size of a kennel that would be considered an acceptable minimum for a large dog. There was barely enough headroom for the animal to stand up and turn around. It was in a covered area with no natural light.

I remember the baby black bear who was allowed to repeatedly come in contact with the electric hot wire around the enclosure area in order to “teach” him to stay within the boundary. He was also “cuffed” multiple times to supposedly duplicate the discipline of a mother bear. What would you think of someone who did that with a puppy or kitten? How in the world would a human with no background or education in animal behavior, as far as I could tell, have the faintest idea what a momma bear would cuff her cub for?

I remember the owner of one game ranch complaining to us about the owner of another one because the guy had gotten caught and cited by the Feds so many times that it had drawn increased scrutiny onto everyone else.

I remember speaking with a fairly well-known wildlife artist at a show, gingerly asking her about the game ranches. She immediately and strongly assured me that the animals were never mistreated to make them “perform”. I changed the subject.

I’ve wondered more than once when a litter is born, what happens to the babies or youngsters who aren’t willing to be socialized to people. If there are five wolf pups and only one can be handled, what happens to the other four? I think I can guess, but currently have no direct knowledge. However, these people are running businesses that need to make a profit, not sanctuaries.

I believe that there is an inherent conflict in the use of animals for profit at these game ranches. The owner’s revenue stream, profit, mortgage and care of their families is dependent on their ability to “deliver the goods”. And I think, with what I’ve seen in the pet rescue world, history has conclusively shown that if there is a choice between what serves human profit vs. what serves the animal’s interest, the animal almost always comes out on the short end.

Is there a disconnect between wildlife and animal artists who paint what they do out of love for animals, but who then patronize places that are questionable at best? Does the excitement of seeing the animals closeup and getting great photos bury any nagging little doubts or questions about what is going on at these ranches? Is it more convenient to take the explanations of the owners at face value about how they run their business?

I’m not saying that the owners are bad people or that there is deliberate abuse or cruelty going on. But, ask yourself honestly, are the conditions you’ve seen, if you’ve been to the ranches as opposed to the locations, appropriate or right or fair for any animal, much less wild ones.

I am ambivalent no longer. I will no longer patronize game ranches and I urge my fellow wildlife artists to look into their hearts and consider whether or not they should, either.

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