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Wildlife Photography: Part 1 – Code of Ethics

by Deb Tappan

“Whether you’re out hiking in the backcountry or sightseeing from your car, having a chance encounter with wildlife is a magnificent and treasured moment. Watching little elk calves speed running zigzag among the herd or glimpsing a bear munching on glacier lilies are sights that captivate and inspire us all.”   – Deb

For many however, the experience is so overpowering they lose sight of the fact that the subject of their admiration is a wild creature. Yes, sadly, I’ve seen some foolish human behavior over the years which resulted in tragic consequences to wildlife and humans. Therefore, it’s imperative that you know how to view and photograph wildlife sensitively and responsibly in a low impact manner. You will be rewarded with the most amazing experiences and others will learn from your fine example!

We natural history photographers adhere to a certain code of ethics. These guidelines are designed to ensure no harm is done to wildlife or their natural habitats. This is accomplished by following the points given below and by inquiring into and abiding by the rules and regulations of the area (national park, wilderness area, etc.) you are visiting. Be aware that the ecosystem you visit may be fragile, so tread gently and practice “leave no trace” principles (

    • First and foremost, view wildlife from a safe distance for both you and them. Respect their spatial needs. If the animal interrupts its behavior (resting, feeding, etc.), then you are too close and must distance yourself.
    • Never force an action. Be patient! The most beautiful photographs result from natural action.
    • Never come between a parent and its offspring. I’ve seen tiny bear cubs distressed, treed then separated from their mother by a throng of tourists eager for a closer look. This is unacceptable behavior.
    • Never crowd, pursue, prevent escape, make deliberate noises to distract, startle or harass wildlife. This is stressful and wastes valuable energy in needless flight. The impact is cumulative. Consider that you may be the 65th person to yell “hey moose” at that animal that day while it’s attempting to tend to its young.
    • Never feed or leave food (bait) for wildlife. Habituation due to handouts can result in disease or even death of that animal and injury to you.
    • Never encroach on nests or dens as certain species will abandon their young.
    • Never interfere with animals engaged in breeding, nesting, or caring for young. Learn to recognize wildlife alarm signals and never forget that these animals are NOT tame no matter how docile or cuddly they appear. No one would argue that you should not try to pet a bull yet there have been numerous instances where a tourist attempted to have his/her photo taken next to a bison with disastrous consequences.
    • Do not damage or remove any plant, lifeform or natural object.
    • Do pack out any trash.
    • Acquaint yourself with and respect the behaviors and ecosystems of the wildlife you may encounter. By doing so, you will enrich your experience tremendously.
    • Finally, and most significant, remember that the welfare of the subject and habitat are irrefutably more important than the photograph.

May you enjoy the beauty the wild lands have to offer!

Photo title: Moose Cow Feeding in a Pond (view 2) – (Yellowstone NP)
Photograph and text: Copyright 2004-2023 Deborah Siminski Tappan. All rights reserved.

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