Some photographers bait wildlife to get that perfect shot. Is that right?

by Moira Farr

Last winter, an influx of northern owl species to the Ottawa area brought droves of bird watchers and photographers from all over the province and even the United States, hoping to get glimpses, and photos, of the impressive creatures. To heighten the drama, some photographers brought live mice to throw out onto snowy fields, enticing the big birds to swoop in for the kill. They posted the resulting dramatic photographs on birding and wildlife websites.

The practice appalled many local observers, including me. We could see that it encouraged owls to lurk around human groups, waiting to be fed and possibly endangering themselves (every year, wildlife sanctuaries take in owls that have been hit by cars). At least one bird got in the habit of following birders as they drove from spot to spot. It created a zoo-like atmosphere of crowds watching wild animals “perform.” And it seemed cruel to turn the last moments of the captive mice into a spectacle. In one instance, a shrike swooped in and snatched the mouse before an owl had the chance. Some of the people watching laughed.

Tensions rose. Birders said they would stop reporting owl sightings altogether and challenged photographers when they saw them pull mice from their pockets. The birders saw the quiet pleasure of viewing wildlife in a natural setting turning into something closer to visiting Disneyland. Shouting matches and heated e-mail debates erupted as photographers vigorously defended themselves. What was the difference, they countered, between providing live mice and putting out a birdfeeder in hopes of drawing birds to a particular spot for the viewing pleasure of humans? Or of calling or using tape recordings of bird sounds to bring birds closer, techniques that birders use all the time? Most captive mice are bred as food anyway; and rodents are the staple diet of wild owls, after all.

Coming to a sound and consistent ethical stance on how all of us should behave toward wildlife is not easy. Disturbed by what I was seeing and hearing, I contacted the Canadian Wildlife Service and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. Both made it clear that the practice of baiting wild owls is not illegal. A lengthy feature about ethics on Canadian Geographic’s Photo Club website suggests that people who profess to love wildlife do not share a single point of view: “Baiting animals to get great shots is a practice that’s widespread in the industry, among both professionals and amateurs. While parks and protected areas may have rules about feeding wildlife, it’s not an entirely restricted practice in Canada and there are arguments both for and against it.”

I also contacted PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) in Norfolk, Va. Its wildlife biologist, Jody Minion, wrote: “While PETA appreciates the value and power of photography in raising public appreciation for wildlife, art doesn’t need to involve cruelty. There is no reason or justification for releasing captive-bred mice into open fields to attract – and be killed and eaten by – owls or any other animals.”

That seemed right to me. As I interpret the ethical guidelines of most bird-watching organizations, owl baiting is ill-advised, especially when many individuals do it repeatedly. As the Ontario Federation of Ornithologists (OFO) points out, “In the past, a code of ethics was not considered necessary, but times have changed, and as more and more pressure is put on our environment, it is essential to do whatever we can to lead by example. Each of us must show consideration to other birders, landowners, habitat, birds and other wildlife at all times.” (The OFO code of ethics is on the organization’s website:

The debate will no doubt continue, and anyone who loves nature has to consider his or her own stance on all manner of issues about how best to protect and conserve the environment. Laws may not forbid baiting wild owls with captive-bred mice, and the ethical guidelines of wildlife and photographic organizations may be open to wide interpretation, but in the end, I find myself going with my gut: I won’t be turning the wilderness I love into my personal coliseum any time soon.

moira_farrMoira Farr is an Ottawa-based writer whose last story for ON Nature was “The mussel crisis” (Winter 2008/2009).