Wildlife photography ethics

Written by Deb Tappan

For photographers, it’s imperative that you know how to view and photograph wildlife sensitively and responsibly in a low impact manner.

Elk trio

Elk family, copyright Deborah Siminski 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.

For many however, the experience is 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 the points given on the next page 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

Wildlife Code of Ethics

  1. 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.
  2. Never force an action. Be patient! The most beautiful photographs result from natural action.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Never feed or leave food (baiting) for wildlife. Habituation due to handouts can result in disease or even death of that animal and injury to you.
  6. Never encroach on nests or dens as certain species will abandon their young.
  7. Never interfere with animals engaged in breeding, nesting, or caring for young.
  8. 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.
  9. Do not damage or remove any plant, life form or natural object. Do pack out trash.
  10. Acquaint yourself with and respect the behaviors and ecosystems of the wildlife you may encounter. By doing so, you will enrich your experience tremendously.
  11. Finally, and most significant, remember that the welfare of the subject and habitat are irrefutably more important than the photograph.

About the author

Deb Tappan

Natural history photographer Deb Tappan, a native of Indiana, received concurrent degrees from Indiana University in both Telecommunications and Environmental Studies before eventually calling Tennessee home with husband Paul and dog Utah.
Involved with newspaper production for many years, she "retired" from the University of Tennessee where she had served for 15 years. Deb now is dynamically engaged in her other life's passions.

For more than a decade, Deb has hiked in and
explored many of our national parklands. Through her photography, she has attempted to "transport" the magnificent topography, life forms, and natural history from wherever she finds them.

"Invariably the uniqueness and beauty of wild lands
always manage to move me. I'm awestruck by their diversity of texture and essence. It brings me great joy to be able to share those sights in this way and to, hopefully, nurture the same sense of awe and devotion to their protection and

Deb's interest in photography was kindled when she was quite young. "It is a gift from my Dad. He was the one who introduced me to photography and black and white printing. Using the furnace room of our house as the darkroom and
an old movie projector as an enlarger he showed me the magic of print making and capturing those moments of time."

Deb's photographic skills have continued to evolve. She maintained a wet darkroom (in a closet) initially and now has moved into
the digital age. A digital SLR rounds out her equipment. Not foregoing film, she uses a high end film/slide scanner.

In the spring of 2003, Deb launched her site and store which showcase her photographic work. Currently, her photographs hang
in residences and offices across the country.

In addition to her photography, Deb is involved with the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and other academic pursuits and environmental causes.

isn't static."

Thumbnails are of photos by Deb Tappan - used with permission. Copyright Deborah Siminski Tappan. All rights reserved