This Will Probably Get Me In Trouble, But The Problem Isn’t Just At SeaWorld…..

OPINION ALERTI don’t think that you will be left in any doubt as to my opinions in the following piece. Civil, thought-out comments are welcome. All others will go in the virtual round file. And the protestations of those whose income relies in any way on the use of captive wild animals for profit will be taken with Upton Sinclair’s quote in mind: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on his not understanding it.I’m not out to necessarily change anyone’s mind or behavior, but if I make you uncomfortable about some assumptions you’ve had, well, I’ve done my job.

So, SeaWorld is in the news again with another “attack” by a killer whale/orca, resulting in a human death. SeaWorld is one of the public faces of Animals As Entertainment. Do not be deceived by their blather about science. They wouldn’t spend a dime on it if they didn’t need to to reassure the public that they are doing “good things” that benefit the animals. The trainers are simply enablers.

Heather Houlahan, over at her blog Raised By Wolves, has a dynamite post on the issues involved in “training” wild animals like orcas, how the so-called positive methods used have bled over into the training of domestic dogs and what really goes on in getting a five ton marine mammal to do what you want, say, to let you collect its urine.

At the intersection of humans, animals and profit, the interests of our species almost always triumph. But there’s some level of at least sub-conscious discomfort because the people involved seem to consistently insist that they love animals. But their income and the care of their families is dependent on the orca/wolf/lion etc. performing as needed. There is an inherent conflict here that the parties involved need to, no, must, ignore.

A partly hidden world of using animals to perform for profit are the game ranches that provide genetically wild animals for photographers, movies, tv and, increasingly, animal artists. When visiting them you hear the same thing as from places like SeaWorld: “Oh, they’re wild. They could hurt you. Can’t be trained by anything but positive methods.” Which means, I guess, that they aren’t actually beaten. But they live in a sensory-deprived environment, unable to express their normal behaviors and instincts and are totally dependent on humans for food…..just like the marine mammals at SeaWorld.

I’ve seen an adult snow leopard kept in a cage maybe equal to its full length (barely including the tail), only taken out for “training” and to perform. A baby bear who was allowed to shock itself on an electric wire to “teach” it to stay with in the enclosed area. A badger who could not be handled, so her claws had grown to around twice the normal length. She was kept in a cage and only brought out for photo opps at a pre-dug hole, never getting to dig herself. But, hey, she lived to over twenty, so she must have had a good life, right?

These places breed animals too. Want a cherry-red fox, a particularly desirable color variant? If you’re in that world, you know who to call. Need a white wolf/black jaguar/bobcat/lynx/grizzly cub/cougar/snow leopard/Siberian tiger/Barbary lion? They’re all out there, for a price, just waiting to become stars who make their owners (with luck, lots of) money.

And what happens to the ones who don’t want to socialize to humans or simply refuse to perform and pay their way? I have no personal knowledge, but the economics of running such a business and the fact that zoos and sanctuaries, as far as I know, won’t take these “surplus” animals is suggestive.

The animals at both the ranches that I’ve gone to are kept in enclosures that are, from what I’ve seen, the same size or smaller than the worst, crappy old-time zoo cages that you can imagine. But since the ranches are “regulated” by the Agriculture Department, they come under the heading of livestock, just like cows and pigs, so official zoo standards of care don’t apply. Sweet, uh?

If the accredited zoo standard of care for game ranch wild animals was required, these places would be out of business tomorrow. And lax state regulation and oversight is probably one reason why the ranches are located in the states they are. But I actually did hear the owner of one place complaining about the owner of another because his violations were so constant and egregious that it had brought the Feds down on him and now all the others were facing increased scrutiny. Life is SO unfair.

The motive is the same as with places like SeaWorld- using captive, genetically wild animals for profit by making them perform certain behaviors for humans as and when required. The ranches, so far, fly under the public and animal welfare radar. But pretty much every calendar and a lot of magazine articles that you see and read, with photos of snow leopards, wolves, cougars and the like, are almost certainly captive animals from these ranches. I’ve even recognized some. Oh, there’s Jimmy the cougar and Princess the snow leopard (made-up names).

I must admit to some frustration with artists who profess to care about wild animals enough to spend their professional lives painting them, but have let their desire to be physically close to them and get reference images blind them to what is going on from an animal welfare standpoint. (See above quote by Upton Sinclair) And of course the people who own the ranches are nice folks. I don’t doubt it. I’ve met some of them. I’m sure they believe it when they say that their animals are treated well. But there’s that pesky inherent conflict again.

(I’m ambivalent about zoos, too. But, as another artist put it, she sees the animals in them as the individual sacrifices necessary to save entire species. And real conservation and science goes on at most of them. So, to me, they can justify their existence, more or less. However, I’ve talked to more than one keeper who seemed very certain that they knew what a given animal in their care needed to be “happy”. But is any kind of human introduced “enrichment” or fiddling with the enclosure really enough? And how can the humans really know? See above quote by Upton Sinclair. I’ve seen a depressing amount of stereotyped behavior like pacing and paw-licking at all the “good” zoos.)

The question, to my mind, isn’t how genetically wild animals are treated in captivity when used for human entertainment and profit, but whether should they be kept at all.

(A final note: I have no use for PETA or any other animal rights organization of their ilk. PETA kills 97% of the animals that are unfortunate enough to fall into their clutches. Their agenda is to end the keeping of all animals by humans. They are batshit crazy extremists. See this post on Pet Connection for more information. My concern is animal welfare. And if you are unclear on the difference, use teh googles.)

Additional Comments On Game Ranches and How I See the Issue

My name came up on Julie Chapman’s blog about the article by Thomas Mangelsen in Wildlife Art Journal. In addressing the post and comments there, I ended up adding to my thinking about the issue. The post is here. Here’s my comment.

I guess since my name has come up, I ought to show up and comment here, although I suspect that my comments on the Wildlife Art Journal article make my feelings about the subject pretty clear. I have thought a lot about game ranches since my two experiences at them and have come to feel that they are not a place that I choose to go, for the reasons that I and Mangelsen enumerate.

So, FWIW:

I don’t believe that for him, and I agree, the issue is being a purist, but of being honest about how and where one collects images of genetically wild animals. If the photo is not labeled “captive”, then people are free to assume, as most do, that the image was taken in the wild, as Larry, and I at one time, believed. Truth in advertising, I guess. That’s not at all the game ranch’s fault or responsibility.

Painters don’t have the same issue of attribution that a photographer has, since a good artist generally uses multiple reference, or brings a unique point of view, for a painting and doesn’t simply copy a single photograph, theirs or anyone else’s.

I think as we live our lives we all end up in the position of having friends, sometimes quite good friends, who do things or have beliefs that we don’t agree with. The choice is either to accept that or end the friendship. Mangelsen chose to stay friends with Bob Kuhn.

By “old school”, I think that he may have been referring more to a way of thinking about animals that has changed dramatically in the last twenty years. We have gone from Descartes’ view that they are “machines”, driven by instinct, feeling no pain and having no souls to a recognition that we share the world with many sentient species. Year by year, the definition of what separates homo sapiens from animals has to be modified. Oh, they use tools. Oh, they recognize themselves in a mirror. Oh, they have culture. Oh, they have a sense of fairness. Oh, they lie and cheat. And the list goes on.

I have found that in order to reconcile, and be personally ethically consistent with, what I have learned over the years about animals and from my involvement in animal welfare (definitely not PETA-type animal rights, a whole different deal) and dog and cat rescue, I can’t justify going to game ranches.

I can, with reluctance, accept zoos that are heavily involved with education, conservation and the preservation of endangered species. I’ve pretty much reached the point where I choose not to support activities in which animals are used for human entertainment where there is a significant risk of abuse, either physical, emotional or psychological. I await the day when animals are no longer needed in any kind of research because computer models are superior.

My thinking is constantly evolving in this area as I add to my knowledge. My husband and I decided last year to no longer eat meat that we cannot source and that we do not know to have come from animals who have been treated humanely. This includes eggs. We refuse to support industrial animal agriculture, with its battery cages, feedlots and cruel confinement.

I wish to emphasize that these are all personal choices. I have no wish to dictate what other artists, photographers or people, in general, choose to do.

I think you can see that my decision about game ranches is just one part of a larger question that I’ve been thinking about for years- What is the appropriate relationship between humans and the fellow creatures we share this planet with?

PS, Larry- Barry Bonds- Being a Giants fan, I watched the whole thing play out. My opinion, and it is just my opinion, is that he probably used something in the 1980s at a time when many players did, so maybe the playing field was effectively re-leveled during The Steroid Era. Maybe he should be prosecuted (he’s charged with perjury, not substance use per se), but then there’s quite a few other ball players who used stuff and lied about it. How come they’re not on trial? His biggest problem has maybe been his attitude, which alienated the sports media, who often seem to feel an amazing sense of entitlement in what they feel they are owed by pro athletes. I’m not pro or anti Barry, by the way. It is what it is. Giants fans have moved on.

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)

Or
“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.”
Or
“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.