With the invention of smartphones, it seems like people feel the need to share almost every aspect of their lives. Where they’re going to dinner, when they’re at the airport waiting to go on vacation, what their kids and pets are doing, and almost anything else. Most of the time, this involves sharing photos. With cameras on every cell phone, everyone has a camera all the time, without needing to lug around any extra equipment. While this has its upside, lately there has been a rise in one particularly dangerous action: taking pictures of, or often with, wild and captive animals. In our quest to enjoy the beauty of the natural world, some humans are putting animals at risk, and even killing them simply for a photo op. Is it really so hard to just enjoy nature from afar, rather than demanding to get up close and personal?
The mission of many zoos and aquariums is to not only educate the public about conservation, but also to provide up close encounters that many people would otherwise not be able to experience. Some guests are not satisfied with this, and often take matters into their own hands. I once saw a father at a zoo reach in to a tortoise pen, take the tortoise out, and hold it up for his son to look at, and pet. The tortoises were perfectly visible from the outside of the pen, including through windows put in place for small children to see. Apparently, that was not good enough for this father. I feel like maybe in some people’s minds, zoos sort of “owe it to us” to provide literal hands on experiences. The animals are there after all, for us to look at. But at what point does this go too far?
Many parks, including our own Canobie, have peacocks roaming free. In February of this year, two peacocks at the Yunnan Wild Animal Park in China died from shock after several tourists lifted them up to take pictures with them. They also plucked out the birds’ feathers, which I can say from personal experience is very painful (I had to pluck the feathers of one of my birds for a mail-in DNA test). Peacocks are beautiful animals, and I have taken several pictures of them at Canobie and a few zoos. However, they were always at a distance, and I would never try to pick one up (I must say, my pictures came out great, no need to get any closer). Birds in general do not like to be held, including pet birds. Many zoos I have been to offer perfect photo ops, without stressing the animals. There are opportunities to feed animals, where one person can do the feeding as the other takes pictures. When my boyfriend and I visited Discovery Cove, there were professional photographers throughout the park that captured candid shots of us with the animals. We were able to just focus on the animals, while someone else worried about the camera.
Unfortunately, this problem is not limited to captive animals. In the past year alone, I can think of about ten cases where a wild animal was killed or almost killed due to humans trying to take pictures. This is perhaps more disturbing, as it often involves taking the animal out of its environment for the photos. Just this month, a shark was taken out of the ocean, and suffocated while people gathered around to take pictures. I know many people do not know every detail of an animal's physiology, but it’s common sense that fish cannot breathe on land. These people had to have known that they were killing the shark, right? Perhaps it is harder to sympathize with an animal that isn’t cute and cuddly? I’m not sure what the logic was in this, but it’s not the first or the last time it happened. There was another case where a couple took a dolphin out of the water, and held it up for pictures, and even sat on top of it like they were riding it. While it’s true that dolphins breathe air, the stress of being plucked from the water is probably what ultimately caused its death, much like the peacocks. An endangered loggerhead sea turtle was also taken from the ocean for pictures, in addition to being stepped on and hit with sticks. Luckily, she is recovering in a rehab center.
here have been several incidents in our national parks involving bison. This brings up another good point: our obsessions with getting great pictures not only endangers the animals, but us as well. Bison are huge animals, and they have been seen charging people who get too close. There is a warning upon entering parks not to get too close to the animals, but this is so often ignored. A young bison was also recently put down due to humans doing more harm than good, as they thought they were saving it when in reality the mother may have been nearby. Similar occurrences can be seen with baby seals. They often climb onto the beach to warm up here in the cold New England waters. People often see this as a sign that the baby is abandoned, and needs help, when mom may be just off shore keeping watch in addition to possibly separating mom and baby, humans trying to help could also get bitten, and seal bites are very nasty and often get infected.
So what is the reason for this need to capture moments with animals? Why does it need to go so far that the animals are in danger? I think it starts with our natural love of the wild. Studies have indeed shown that spending time outdoors is good for our mental and physical health. We also share a kinship with animals. Not just the ones we choose to share our lives within our homes, but all animals. Our pets were bred to be companions, but we share strong bonds with all animals. In modern times, we are far more sheltered. While many of us have pets, in some ways this is not enough. Humans used to be surrounded by animals at all times, and perhaps our primal selves crave this still, outside of our housemates. I believe that this need, combined with our newer desire to share our lives with everyone else via the internet, has led to these problems. Many people are just happy to take a picture of an animal doing its thing without getting closer, but others feel the need to be as good as say, a National Geographic photographer. I think part of the reason is a lack of empathy with animals, especially those that aren’t what we’re used to. The wild ones, and the not-so-cuddly ones (I plan on exploring the lives and minds of some not-so cuddly animals soon, to hopefully change some minds in this blog). Knowledge is power, and the more people know about how animals live their lives and feel what they feel, the less likely they will be to abuse this close bond we share with them.
Nicole is currently employed at a university, caring for lab animals. She has always been an animal lover, and more recently an animal activist.