Love wildlife photos? There’s a good chance they weren’t shot in the wild

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A wolf with lush, black fur and piercing yellow eyes is sitting on a stack of rocks in the woods, staring down a group of photographers less than 10 feet away. Whenever its head turns, camera shutters fire off like machine guns. The wolf’s handler asks the photographers how they plan to explain their luck at capturing these seemingly once-in-a-lifetime images. “The story is, you staked out for four weeks, out in the wilderness,” one of the photographers jokes.

The real story is that the wolf is a three-year-old captive named Zeus, and the photographers only drove out to meet him this morning, from their comfortable lodge five minutes away. Zeus was raised and trained at a game farm called Minnesota Wildlife Connection, where his job is to pose for photographers and videographers who want to create images of animals in the wild.

Search the internet for extraordinary animal images like a cougar leaping across two pillars of sandstone, a wolf calling for the moon, or a grizzly bear frolicking in the snow, and you’ll find dozens of nearly identical photos featuring captive animals just like Zeus. Similar to the game farms that offer captive wild animals for hunting, photography game farms offer captive wild animals for photos.

Such farms are controversial, posing questions about both the integrity of the photography and the welfare of the animals involved. But they are also convenient tools of the trade for commercial photographers, whose images—in ads, documentaries, viral animal pictures, and even wildlife photography competitions—you’ve probably seen and maybe even shared, unaware of their origin.

Searching “cougar jumping sandstone” pulls up hundreds of photos, most identically staged. (Screenshot from Google Images)
Searching “cougar jumping sandstone” pulls up hundreds of photos, most identically staged. (Screenshot from Google Images)

How to take stunning wildlife photos in minutes

Zeus’s handler, 20-year-old McKenzie Greenly, runs Minnesota Wildlife Connection with her father, Lee. She grew up with wolf and coyote cubs sleeping in her childhood bed, she says. The farm is currently home to a black bear, five cougars, 20 wolves, 46 foxes, and a 2,000-pound bison, along with a bevy of smaller animals.

One snowy weekend in January, at one of the farm’s group photography workshops, Lee Greenly came to an open field with a pack of three impatient juvenile wolves leashed on metal chains. A dozen or so visiting photographers lined up a few meters from the animals, forming a human cordon, cameras in hand. The wolves were released to run toward McKenzie, standing less than 100 feet away.

“Good boy! Good girl!” she called, waving frozen chunks of meat. As the wolves dashed toward her, the photographers clicked away, one sitting on a foldable stool, another resting his equipment on a monopod.

Although never trained as photographers, the Greenlys are keenly aware of what it takes to give their clients a good photo. McKenzie knows to nudge a cougar forward so its eyes catch a glint of sunshine. Sometimes, she reminds photographers to let her know if she’s in the frame, and even recommends the specific lenses photographers should use for a shoot.

Later, the photographers shoot close-up portraits of an adult wolf posed with his head between two birch trees; a cougar coaxed to sit atop a fallen tree, its long tail hanging elegantly below; and foxes teased to chase each other in and out of a hollow log.

Like all felines, the wild cats respond somewhat less enthusiastically to instruction than the canines. Asked to walk along a fallen log, one bobcat instead jumped off and hid under a nearby ATV until Lee caught it with a fishing net.

Once animals have performed, McKenzie picks them up and hugs them, smothering each in kisses. In a baby voice, she tells them how proud she is of them.

The strange world of game farm photography

Before getting into the game farm business over 30 years ago, Greenly worked part-time as an animal caretaker at a zoo in Hinckley, Minnesota. The zoo owner saw that he was good at the job and started giving him animals to train during winter months.

Eventually, Greenly bought some animals from the zoo and started breeding and training them on his own, sometimes selling new cubs back to the zoo or renting them out. A few years later, some photographers started paying him to take pictures of the animals and his business “exploded,” he says.

Photographers pay $1,000 each to attend a two-day workshop like the one I’m visiting. Lee’s most popular workshop, held in springtime, is dedicated to newborns such as wolf and bear cubs.

Lee holds three group workshops per year, which bring in about 30% of his annual revenue. The rest comes mostly from customized private sessions for individual photographers or small groups, and from the occasional documentary or TV film crew. In addition to commercial photographers, many of his clients are hobbyists from local camera clubs.

Today, Lee says, the farm makes a modest $10,000 to $15,000 a year in profit. He feeds his animals with dog food and vegetables, dead cows he gets from local farmers and roadkill deer he collects for free.

A baby cougar, shot at Minnesota Widlife Connection. (Shutterstock/Holly Kuchera)
A baby cougar, shot at Minnesota Widlife Connection. (Shutterstock/Holly Kuchera)

Business was better before the internet made it possible for producers to access and manipulate cheap stock photography or footage of animals. “People used to come and film seconds and minutes of the wolf running to the woods, and then put it into a movie, where now they can just do an animation,” Lee says.

Then there’s the growing distaste for staged photos altogether. John Nuhn, a former editor of National Wildlife Magazine, says he stopped publishing game farm photos entirely after seeing pictures of the animals kept in cages. “As an organization that supported wildlife in its habitat with the National Wildlife Federation, I and my fellow editors all were convinced that we had to simply stop using game farm pictures totally,” says Nuhn, also a co-founder the North American Nature Photographers’ Association (NANPA).

The trials of running a wildlife game farm

In the US, game farms must be licensed by both state regulators and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). While Minnesota Wildlife Connection holds a state license in Minnesota, its federal license was revoked in 2013 after being charged for 22 animal welfare violations. Greenly says he is not aware that he’s operating illegally.

Most of the USDA’s charges are relatively minor, such as not keeping records when the farm acquired or disposed of animals, or not being present at the farm during surprise inspections by USDA officers. Lee says he thinks the federal agency is being “unrealistic” about the realities of running a small family business.

But two complaints against Minnesota Wildlife Connection include failing to handle animals safely. In 2009, two of Greenly’s wolves wandered off-site during a photoshoot and killed a neighbor’s dachshund, according to the USDA report. Hearing records (PDF) say they “ripped the dog in half.” The following year, federal documents say a Minnesota Wildlife wolf attacked a 5-year-old girl who happened to be near a photo shoot in a state park. Greenly says the little girl was only pushed by the wolf to the ground in play.

Public records show that the most well-known US game farms don’t have great track records in animal welfare and security. In 2012, an animal trainer employed by a game farm called Animals of Montana was mauled and killed by a bear. Another Montana game farm, Triple D Ranch, was found by the USDA (pdf) to have illegally de-clawed a two-month old tiger cub in 2013.

Earlier this year, a retired British hobbyist captured photographs of a grizzly bear fighting a pack of wolves over a deer carcass on the snow. News stories accompanying the photos, which were published online by The Sun and The Daily Mail, say the scene was spotted near “the Rocky Mountains of Montana,” but do not mention the fact that the animals were trained captives, or that the dead deer was actually placed there to stage a fight at Animals of Montana. (Their trainer, Demetri Price, told Quartz in a phone interview that the animals were trained to appear menacing, but do not actually hurt each other.)

None the wiser, nature lovers around the world shared the stories more than 11,000 times.

Can you tell the difference?

A well-executed game farm photograph can be nearly indistinguishable from a real wildlife photo, one reason critics consider such images problematic. Traditional wildlife photographers can spend days researching conditions of the field environment before heading out to shoot. They may camp out for weeks, or return to the same spot many times over the years looking for the same animal before getting the shot of a lifetime. But game farms allow both pros and hobbyists to produce in a few hours what otherwise takes weeks to achieve in the wild.

“[Y]ou can go to these game farms for a few thousand dollars and you can shoot things from snow leopards to bears to tigers to African lions,” says veteran wildlife photographer Tom Mangelsen, a member of the British Wildlife Photographer of the Year jury in 1995 and 2012, and a vocal critic of game farms. “People fudge the captions,” and usually don’t explain that they got their shot in a canned setting, he says.

Monty, the Canadian Lynx at Minnesota Wildlife. (Dwight Tomes)
Monty, the Canadian Lynx at Minnesota Wildlife. (Dwight Tomes)

Holly Kuchera, a stock photographer visiting Minnesota Wildlife the weekend of my visit, says she always labels her photos as captive animals, but she notes that agencies she work with don’t actually require disclosure when photos are sold for commercial, instead of editorial, purposes. According to company statements, neither Shutterstock nor Getty require animals appearing in commercial images to be labeled as tame or wild. But many Minnesota Wildlife clients are discreet about working with game farms, Lee Greenly says. In his office, he proudly displays books and magazines that prominently feature photographs shot with his animals, but not all credit his farm.

In the 1990s, noting the rising use of game farms in wildlife photography, NANPA’s ethics committee developed a set of definitions for “wild” and “captive” animals as captioning guideline for photographers. To ensure the integrity of wildlife photos submitted, prestigious international competitions like the British Wildlife Photographer of the YearWorld Press Photo, and GDT European Nature Wildlife Photographer of the Year forbid the use of captive animal models or staging.

In 2009, photographer José Luis Rodriguez was crowned Wildlife Photographer of the Year by the London Natural History Museum. His image: A perfectly-timed photo of a wolf leaping over a fence. According to a jury member and museum spokesperson, the jury withdrew the award after being tipped off that the wolf was a captive performer. Even judge Jim Brandenburg, a wildlife photographer and wolf expert who has published six books about the animal, had failed to recognize that it was a staged picture.

Aptly titled, “The Storybook Wolf.” (José Luis Rodriguez)
Aptly titled, “The Storybook Wolf.” (José Luis Rodriguez)

There’s a strong likelihood you’ve come across a few stunning scenes of game farm animals yourself, without ever realizing they were staged. BBC’s Frozen Planet show has filmed with zoo animals and in captive environments like studios and tanks, presenting them as wild. And in 2013, a National Geographic film crew rented the Greenlys’ wolves for a documentary series called The Savage Line, Lee says, in an episode called The Wolf Watch, ostensibly about a journalist looking to shoot wolves in the wild with the help of a wilderness guide. Two members of the production crew confirmed this with Quartz, but neither the National Geographic Channel nor the show’s executive producer, Douglas McCallie, responded to Quartz’s repeated requests for comment.

To film a scene of wolves feasting on the remains of a muskox, Lee Greenly says one documentary crew brought a muskox head and hide to the farm, placed them over a deer carcass, and ordered the captive wolves to gorge on the animal.

“Oh gosh. Like I call it, it’s all Hollywood,” Greenly says. “It’s all fake. The viewers don’t know.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that none of the publications on display in Minnesota Wildlife Connection’s office credit the farm. Some do.