Enjoying The Snow. Part IX: Evidence Of Evolution

The great photographer and wildlife biographer Melissa Groo recently said, “It is the best time in history to be a photographer, and the worst time to be a wild animal.” Thanks to better technology for both taking and sharing photos, we have more and more people chasing fewer and fewer animals. You can also turn that view on its head. An Internet awash in images and photographers endlessly producing them has completely devalued the photograph and made it almost impossible for anyone to make a living doing so, thus making it an awful age for photography. And as our wild animals become more endangered and start running out of places to hide, there are more people getting motivated to step in and help them out, and the will of the public to support them is growing because the problem has become so obvious. Success stories in New Jersey seem to be coming faster each year than Taylor Swift’s hit singles. The hard data on Eagles, Osprey, Piping Plover, and Peregrines, for example, are all looking good and the hard work of a handful of dedicated heroes is making a huge, positive impact on the future.

Whatever the case, we are most certainly evolving. We as humans are evolving, the animals are evolving, and the ways we live together are evolving. And so our attitudes must evolve too. The funny thing is that our attitudes, as simple mental and emotional abstractions that we can control, should be the quickest to evolve.  But they usually aren’t. They actually tend to lag way behind reality. Yet slowly over time, as each new generation replaces the next, our attitudes and understanding evolve. Each generation is born into a world with a different baseline reality than the last, and the old timers are either slowly and begrudgingly convinced that things indeed have changed, or simply die off. Thankfully, for every grumpy old guy trampling through the Piping Plover’s protected nesting area and mumbling to me about how “they took our land!”, there is a young child begging for a look through my scope and telling me why sharing the beach with the local animals is so important.

I’ve been encouraged more times than I can count to write something on the Readings about people & snow owls hanging out together. Sometimes I’ve been encouraged by wildlife fans who hope I can help spread the word that birders and photographers are bad. Other times I’ve been encouraged by wildlife fans hoping I can get the message out that the people who think birders and photographers are bad are themselves too uptight and unrealistic. I knew that by sharing my actual experiences, most people would be happy with only about one half of what I would have to admit that I’ve seen.

Last year I had a chance to talk about some of the issues regarding snow owls at Holgate with the great Scott Weidensaul, probably our planet’s leading expert on both the subjects of wildlife ethics and snow owls. But as various subjects came up regarding people interacting with snow owls, from sharing locations, to baiting, to over-crowding, he just kind-of grimaced. “Mmmmm. It’s challenging…. there is just something about snow owls that makes people go a little crazy,” he offered. “They seem to make different people either overly reckless on the one hand, or overly protective on the other.” I was stunned into silence hearing this important truth that came from his deep experience. This was true wisdom. Which is also sad because easy answers would be so much… easier. So I just kept mouth shut and kept thinking about it.

But something was different about the winter of 2015. Something very unexpected. Despite the fact that there were more people than ever visiting the island to hang out with fewer snow owls, the vibe was the most positive it has ever been and the evidence of evolving attitudes was everywhere. I met so many great people this season. So many reasonable, nice, intelligent folks coming to see the owls who see the big picture of what is happening out there and so naturally act accordingly. I met so many people who knew how to enjoy the snow owls, or get a great photo, without breaking the law or aggressively hassling. These are people who know how not to undermine their own self interest or the welfare of the animals. These are people who care naturally and somewhat effortlessly, because they see that taking good care of our wild subjects is a compliment, not a contradiction, to getting a good photo or having a good observation session. These are people whose attitudes have evolved way beyond extreme simplicities of the crazy-seal-ladies and the hopelessly entitled. And through their example, these people were having a huge influence on everyone who came out to the habitat.

Sure there were plenty of instances of the classic problems: people trespassing and harassing owls because their bad timing tricked them into feeling entitled to do so, and folks getting greedy, pushing that one step too far and both bothering the animals and destroying their sessions. Large groups would gather and be generally well behaved, and then the last person left would almost always trespass and/or flush. There were occasional crazy-seal-ladies running around, trying to control the beach, but not really looking carefully at the situation and therefore not really providing any value or making any productive impact. Yet those people were clearly in the minority this season, and the fact that the majority was so reasonable made those extreme voices on both sides less dominant and more irrelevant. It feels like we are getting more real about the situation. Bad behavior is apparently going out of fashion, and the fewer instances of it I saw were more obviously absurd and intolerable to a greater number of people.

It surely inspired me to share my experiences, much like a cowardly villager who shouts “Yeah, off with his head!” right after the King has been beheaded. For so long the debate about how to act like a regular, decent person around wild animals has been too polarized between the crazy-seal-ladies and the foolishly entitled. I know there are many regular folks like me who sometimes feel trapped, wanting to talk some sense into people harming animals right in front of them but fearing being written off as the crazy seal lady or the ethics police. I suppose we owe a huge debt of gratitude to everyone who has ever acted like or been called a crazy seal lady or the ethics police… because those radical voices, although often annoying and counter productive, probably did awaken a recognition of better ways and deeper truths in the culture.  While I laughed at the first crazy seal lady I ever met (and still think she was “wrong”, just for the record), I’m still thinking about her and writing about her all these years later. She planted some kind of seed.

And the whole art of wildlife photography is evolving too. Melissa Goo, quoted at the opening, is Audubon Magazine’s Photographer Of The Year. Her strong, reasonable voice about ethics is inspiring a whole generation of photographers. She is showing the world that caring about animals is not a hindrance to great photos; it is the secret to them. Audubon Magazine itself has even released an amazing set of Ethical Guidelines for Bird Photographers. These are simple, no-nonsense guidelines without a hint of over-reaching or judgement. They are practical suggestions that are simple and actionable and difficult to disagree with. And most importantly, they demonstrate that our whole concept of what makes a good photograph is evolving too. They show that photo editors and other professionals are becoming increasingly turned off by once-considered-spectacular photos, like baited snow owls coming in for the kill, or flight shots that obviously come from flushing the bird, and passing on those photos. Because people are seeing more than just the magnificent photo; they are seeing our cruelty and irresponsibility behind it. But this can be a dangerous thing too. You can easily find photographers posting snow owl shots on the ‘net with defensive captions carefully explaining how the photos were taken, to ward off and preempt random comments that the photographer was “too close” or should “just leave those owls alone.”  Yet still, it is a positive development. It keeps us on our toes and makes us think. When the Internet’s eyeballs stop cheering wide angle photos of baby animals in nests that were obviously disturbed, photographers will surely stop taking them.

We are not perfect. We can’t be. That’s an impossible task. We just makes millions of tiny decisions, hopefully to the best of our ability at the time, in a world where everything is continually changing and evolving. What is inspiring is not so much seeing more people acting cool around snow owls, but seeing a community of wildlife fans becoming increasingly interested in and supportive of animal welfare, and also of each other. Treating animals barbarically when it is not necessary has always been stupid, but it is slowly taking humanity a long evolution to recognize that completely. It is obviously especially stupid when photographers, birders, wildlife enthusiasts, and others who either like or are self-interested in protecting animals treat them poorly or endanger them. Yet it is common. So common that it suggests we humans still have many blindspots and so are still learning to see the bigger picture of what is real, what is possible, and what is desirable. It surely doesn’t help that snow owls, as noted by Scott Weidensaul, make us all go a little crazy.

But out there on the beach you can feel it. We are collectively starting to move beyond the simple self-righteousness of the crazy-seal-lady and the willful ignorance of the fantastically entitled. The train is leaving the station, and it is full of curious, intelligent people who are starting to see the relationship between wild animals and fans of wild animals in a more complete, more productive, and more satisfying way. And every mile we travel in that direction confirms we are on the right path as we experience first hand how truly understanding and supporting the interests of our wild animal subjects is in fact what is most in our own self interest. That is something I truly believe. While I still can’t fully articulate the thought, I am hopeful that I will soon be able to thanks to a growing number of role models I meet in the field who are showing us all the way, both leading us, and encouraging us to lead ourselves, in good directions. Good behavior is apparently contagious.

I have been a crazy seal lady, and I have been stubbornly ignorant under the spell of a false sense of entitlement. I’ve dressed the part of an authority, and I have failed to call out Captain Ahab for his crimes. I’ve found myself on both sides of the birder vs. photographer debate, and been left so uncertain about the usefulness of my own observations that I left a winter’s full of work on the cutting room floor. I’ve made bad days so much worse in desperation, and I’ve ruined great opportunities by acting creepy. And I’ve watched a whole bunch of other people do the same.

Most of what I’ve experienced has had the mixed effect of making me slightly more certain in some regards, and significantly more uncertain in others. In fact, there are really only two very simple takeaways from this grotesquely long series of posts. The first is that we should all obey the laws, especially trespassing, and especially the ones that intentionally try to protect animals. The second is that we should stop grossly harassing our subjects, especially when the probability is high that we will ruin our own sessions, or those of others around us, by doing so. Those sound easy, and probably are, but are so widespread they are apparently quite tough to tackle. But if we can achieve those two things to form a base from which to move forward, we can take a huge evolutionary leap and have a better vantage point as humans to consider and address the far more complicated and difficult issues regarding our wild subjects and our relationships with them.

Enjoy the Snow. And keep elevating your perspective each time you do. Evolve your attitudes and understanding and look for ways to drag others along with you. Because as more and more fans chase fewer and fewer animals the challenges are changing and the importance of meeting them is becoming more critical. We are certainly capable of meeting those challenges.

I think that’s it. FIN!