Writers on the Range: Wildlife Falsegraphy

Ted Williams/Courtesy Photo

I am disgusted with American journalism. It’s boring. I fault editors for assigning stories that are meaningless and interviewees for being evasive. So, for a small fee, I provide reporters with stories that could have happened and quotes that should have been spoken. Contact me at CustomFacts.org.

None of the above is true. But if this caught your eye, remember that in most forms of journalism, lies are frowned upon.

This is not the case with wildlife photojournalism. Liars dominate. This infuriates me because I work with so many honest wildlife photographers who spend months taking pictures that the liars get in an hour.

Consider the story from Finland, viral in the United States and Europe with 759,000 page views, of a wild wolf and a brown bear who are constantly jostling each other. “Unusual friendship”, understates a title. “No one can know exactly why or how the young wolf and the bear became friends,” the photographer told the Daily Mail.

A person knows. That would be Melissa Groo, a rising star in honest wildlife photojournalism, who co-chairs the ethics committee of the International League of Conservation Photographers. “There’s now a huge company in northern Europe baiting these animals (often with dog food) for photographers,” she says. “I can’t even look at pictures of these animals from Finland anymore.”

Then there’s the epic ‘wolves and grizzly bear fight’ over bloodstained snow in Montana, documented by a ‘wildlife photographer’. The story was first reported by the Sun and the Daily Mail, then recycled 11,000 times on both sides of the Atlantic. The photos are superb.

The blood came from a planted deer carcass. The grizzly and wolves were tame actors, incarcerated by Animals of Montana, an ‘animal training service’ known for animal abuse, including illegal wildlife trafficking and species law violations endangered. Prior to 2021, when the state closed Animals of Montana, it was frequented by some of the most acclaimed “wildlife photographers” in the world. His website still exists.

The photo-game farm animals “spend much of their lives in small cages with concrete floors and just enough room to turn around,” Groo writes in National Wildlife magazine. Some of these game farms, she learned from freedom of information requests, are analogues of “domestic puppy mills, raising and selling wild animals such as wolves, foxes and lynx. “. Babies are taken from their mothers at an early age and sold to roadside zoos and exotic animal dealers.

Twelve years ago, I considered an undercover visit to Animals of Montana. “Our grizzlies,” proclaimed its website, “will amaze you as they run towards the camera, stand on command, growl viciously, or pose sweetly.” But the violations already listed in his file frightened me. If I had exposed this outfit, the game farm industry would accuse me of pecking.

So I tried Wild Eyes Photo Adventures in Columbia Falls, Montana. But he had been arrested for violating the Animal Welfare Act.

Minnesota Wildlife Connection sounded interesting. But he had sold his tame black bear Cubby for $4,650 to country music star Troy Gentry, who then illegally ‘hunted’ and killed Cubby in his enclosure.

Eventually I settled on Triple D Wildlife in Kalispell, Montana. (This was before the USDA cited him for various abuses, including “dead flies and floating debris” in water bowls, “excessive accumulation of feces and animal food waste in animal enclosures” and “excessive accumulation and accumulation of dirt, grime, fur, and urine”, as well as the declawing of a tiger cub.)

Triple D’s tiger swung into action.
Ted Williams/Daily Special

I “rented” a little Triple D cougar named Jewel. By the time the coach had ushered us to a scenic backdrop, the day had warmed to minus 16 degrees Fahrenheit. Jewel, unaccustomed to nature, lifted and shook each paw like my cat Moop did the time she stepped in the turpentine.

Jewel photogenically banged the deer hair toy slung in front of her by the trainer. He had to take her back to the truck. Still, that had probably been the highlight of Jewel’s sad day.

I felt bad for wolves who spent most of their lives in a dark, damp enclosure. When I took Triple D’s Big John and Lakota out for a “photo shoot”, the other 15 wolves cried. Big John and Lakota reveled in their brief freedom, sending beef treats thrown by the coach whenever they jumped over logs or pretended to growl viciously. After his antics, Big John rolled onto his back to rub his stomach.

“You couldn’t have gotten those shots in the wild,” Triple D co-owner Jay Deist said angrily after I asked questions he didn’t like.

He was right.