On the Problem of Filmming Wolves (Or, “On The Ethics of Wildlife Filmmaking”)

Three Bald Eagles fight over a deer carcass in Northern Wisconsin. 

In the three years I’ve been working on the Wolf Patrol documentary I have not seen a wolf. Actually, most of the Wolf Patrol crew hasn’t seen one either. Early on, in the first days of the campaign, two activists caught a glimpse of one, and Rod Coronado may have seen one scuttling by on a forest service road, but I have yet to have any significant interaction with wolves.

 

So what do you do when you are making a film about activists trying to protect wolves if you cannot actually find wolves to film for yourself?

 

There are a few options…

 

But before I get into them, I do want to state that seeing and interacting with wolves is not the main goal of my film project, nor is it the main goal of Wolf Patrol.  Indeed, my main goal in making the Wolf Patrol film is to raise awareness about the abuse of wildlife on our public lands. This also involves documenting human attitudes towards wildlife. And though I see signs of wolves and other animals all the time (scat, tracks, etc), I don’t actually need to see wolves in person to tell the story of human / wildlife interaction.

 

But I digress.

 

What options does a filmmaker have if they are having a hard time filming wolves in the wild?

 

First, a filmmaker could spend a month or more in the woods stalking wolves. They could develop sophisticated tracking skills and really get to know the wolf packs living in a particular area (mostly northern WI, in this case). This is an appealing idea, but who has an entire month to devout to such endeavors (there’s work, family life, the rest of the film, etc)?

Second, a filmmaker could travel to Yellowstone National Park, where there are known wolves, and film them there. Or so I thought… However, I tried this in the summer of 2015, and I have to admit, it was much more difficult than one might think. The best video I was able to obtain was from about a mile away, and the wolves looked like little more than mice in a field (even with an 800mm lens).

 

How does National Geographic do it, you ask? Well, I suspect that they spend hundreds of more hours in the field than I can afford. They also have the best equipment money can buy– super long lenses, telescopes that adapt to cameras, etc.

 

It is possible to get video of wolves in Yellowstone, but you need a good amount of time, and a good amount of money– things most independent documentary filmmakers don’t have.

 

However, if I was going to spend more time in the field trying to film wolves, I would undoubtedly do it in the west where the wide open expanses of places like Yellowstone lend themselves to this type of video work. WI, and other Great Lakes states are just too wooded to get visuals from more than 10 yards away.

 

Third, a filmmaker could buy footage of wolves from a stock footage video supply source like these: www.videohive.net, www.pondfive.com. This is quality footage, but here’s the rub. No one knows how the footage in question was obtained. Most likely, these wolves were photographed in captivity. How else would you get that close? And if they were photographed in captivity you have to ask yourself, how do you feel about keeping wolves in a zoo like environment? Sure, the work that some sanctuaries do is commendable, but should any wild creature really be confined in such a way? If they were unfit for life in the wild, or succumbed to injury, then isn’t this just “nature’s way”?

 

I will not claim to be 100% against wolf sanctuaries, but I will say that I am uncomfortable buying footage from an archive when I don’t know how that footage was obtained, or how the wolves depicted in the video were treated.

 

And this brings us to another common issue with stock footage.

 

Fourth, a filmmaker could buy, or attempt to obtain, stock footage of wolves taken at bait sites. To put it another way, the filmmaker could take some meat from their local butcher shop out into an area where they suspect there are wolves, drop that meat on the ground, and sit in a tree or some kind of blind a safe distance a way. Then, of course, the filmmaker would have to wait and hope that they could get the shot when and if a wolf did arrive.

 

Interestingly, this is how some wildlife filmmakers have done it. Especially when it comes to films about lions and other larger predators in places as vast as Africa. Why pay for a crew to chase a pride of lions around for weeks, or months, when you can simply dump a water buffalo carcass on the ground and wait for them to come to you?

Ultimately, this is a pretty smart way of doing things, but the question remains; is it ethical?

 

Environmental filmmaker Chris Palmer teases out this question in his book, “Confessions of a Wildlife Filmmaker.” I suggest this book to anyone interested in knowing what goes on behind the scenes on many wildlife film shoots.

 

I, personally, have not decided if this type of baiting is ethical or not. I err towards it being unethical, though I feel better about dumping a deer carcass in the woods than some ground beef from my local butcher (at least the deer is a natural part of most predator’s diets). I might also feel better about dragging a road-killed deer off the highway and waiting there for wolves, but this type of activity is illegal in most states (or at least prohibited without a permit). I should also say that your local game warden would probably be pretty upset if you dumped the leftovers from your 4th of July BBQ on the ground in the forest, as well.

 

Fifth, or to continue with the idea of baiting, a filmmaker could bait in a different way. Basically, a filmmaker could bait for wolves in a way similar to trappers, but without the trap, of course! This would involve learning the tricks of the trapping trade and employing “lures” or scents to draw wolves in so that you could photograph them. Wolves, apparently, are very fond of beavers, and one can get beaver scent and beaver type castor oil from trapping supply outlets like Minnesota Trapline.

 

But is this any different than throwing a dead deer on the ground? Or throwing hamburger meet on the forest floor? These are good questions.

 

Or is baiting in this way akin to conditioning wolves (and other animals) to baiting practices that will most likely lead to death or injury by a leg-hold trap? A practice I am staunchly against.

 

Again, it’s hard to say.

 

Maybe baiting in this way is more like catching a fish and releasing it?  But then again, how do you feel about catch and release? Why make another living being suffer if you aren’t even going to have the decency to eat it?

 

Sixth, or finally, is what might be said to be the least obtrusive method of photographing wolves (or attempting to)– trail camera photography. A trail camera is a fixed camera that you attach to a tree and leave in the forest for months. The camera is triggered by movement (some are triggered by heat), and can produce pretty nice images (even at night).

The thing about trail cameras is that you have to know where to put them, and how to best angle them for good image capture. You also have to hope that an animal– in this case a wolf, walks in front of it. Needless to say, to use a trail camera you have to have a good sense of the habits of the animals you are trying to photograph and, at the very least, have identified a game trail.

 

However, even if you suspect that there are wolves in the area you are setting up your trail cameras in, there are many obstacles that can get in your way. Amongst them are the following:

 

– Blowing branches and leaves that set off your trail camera and fill up the memory on your SD card.

 

– A slow trigger that produces photos / video of an animal’s behind as it scurries away.

 

– Growing foliage. I have set up trail cameras in the spring only to come back two months later to find a fern or growing sapling blocking the view.

 

– Theft. Yes, trail cameras are frequently stolen if found in the woods (sure, you can lock it up, but why pay for a lock if someone is going to cut it anyway– especially when they are in the woods with no one around. It’s better to just hope no one finds your camera. I say this even though I have had at least 3 cameras stolen).

 

– Forgetting where you put the trail camera. Yes, it happens.

 

– Cost. Good trail cameras cost about $150 minimum. If you are going to be effective at all, you probably need about ten of them, not to mention a good 10 to 20 SD cards. The batteries get expensive, too.

 

– Frustration. It is hugely frustrating to use trail cameras and spend the time necessary to master the best techniques for photographing wildlife. It is especially frustrating to do so when you see hunters posting video of animals getting up close and personal and sniffing trail cameras (indeed, I suspect that these cameras are smeared with some kind of scent or “lure,” or perhaps the hunter’s own sent is appealing to these animals? Why else would a bear stick its nose right into the lens of a camera?)

 

Finally, the use of trail cameras is by no means a guarantee that you will capture images of a wolf. This process can take months, if not years, and then– when and if you do capture images of a wolf, the question remains: is the quality of the video / photo that which you desire? In most cases, the answer is going to be, “no.” Especially when trying to photograph wolves in the heavily forested wild lands east of the Mississippi River.

 

So, what is an indie filmmaker to do when they want to photograph wolves without spending $15k on high tech camera lenses and a guided two-week tour of Yellowstone with a wolf expert?

 

All I can say is that you weigh your above options and make a decision that feels comfortable to you. If you want to practice “Leave No Trace” wildlands etiquette, and avoid questionable ethical situations, your choices are limited.

 

Alternately, you could spend some time reflecting on your dilemma. In doing so you might realize that a lot of wildlife filmmaking is more about humans, and how humans relate to animals, than the animals themselves. And if you are making a film about activists trying to protect animals that they seldom see, then perhaps it’s o.k. if we don’t see these animals much in the film either.

 

Part of advocating for wild things is fighting to know that there is wildness out there, even if we can’t always see it.

J. Brown Films 2020