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Old November 26th, 2010, 11:08 PM   #1
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Asking an ethical question...

I am setting up this thread to pose a simple question that I would like to open up for discussion.

“When is it acceptable to use food or other means to attract animals and birds for filming wildlife and when does it overstep the mark?”
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Old November 27th, 2010, 05:35 AM   #2
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Hi Marj

I have to pipe up and say that I feel differently about this situation.

I have sat in a number of hides in the UK with feeders outside and watched the feeder birds happily busying themselves. Then out of the blue a Sparrowhawk flashes through the trees and all that's left is a few features, floating towards the ground. Where ever there is a concentration of food you will get lots of animals and where ever there are these concentrations you will get predators who exploit them.

This bird is a Corvid, they are opportunists. They will all from time to time take small birds and of course like any animal, protect territory/ food supplies.

What I think is important is the net effect on the population is a positive one. By Per puttng out all this feed it will mean there are more small birds next Spring. If some of these birds are eaten by the Nutcrackers then maybe there will also be more Nutcrackers next year too! So the net effect is a positive one on the environment.

The only time I've seen what I saw to be an ethical issue on the forum was when Dale G posted footage of himself taking wild Falcon chicks from their nests. No one else seemed to agree with me or at least didn't say anything. Dale explained that him and his friends had increased the local population hugely through digging nest holes. For me this changed things, I realised his net effect on the Falcon population in the area was a hugely positive one. I would guess all the feed Per is putting out also has a positive net effect on the bird population, both Tit and Nutcracker !

Mat
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Old November 27th, 2010, 07:30 AM   #3
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Hi Marg and Mat,

I don't normally wade in on this sort of discussion, as when peoples ethics are questioned, feelings can be hurt.

As far as feeding stations are concerned these are a very important part of conservation in the upper part of the northern hemisphere.

Big freezes here in the uk of 1946/47 1962/63 1978/79 almost wiped most of our song birds as well as many waterbirds having migrated south only to find the estuaries froozen over. Dartford Warblers, wrens, goldcrests etc all perished with losses in populations of over 90%. Last winter we had a similiar big freeze where large loses were again expected, these fotunately did not materialised. Leading conservation societies RSPB and BTO have attributed this to the huge increase in the number people who feed our birds during the winter months.

As Mat points out here the most common predator at a feeding station is the Sparrow Hawk, although I have seen Magpies as well make kills and of course cats.

I think one of Marg's concerns is has the feeding station change the behaviour of the bird and turned it into a killer! From her own research this is clearly not the case as it has been previously noted. But, because of so much food has it now become a gratuitous killer in order to protect its food source . This is where the crux of this debate will centre. What we we do not know is did the killed bird get eaten by its killer!

Feeding stations are not only limited to birds, in many countries where water is scacre water holes are provided in reserves, what are the ethics of filming at these where similiar unusual or out of character behaviour has been witnessed.

I know that I have not given an opinion to the question, but hopefully broadened the debate.

Attached is a link to the BBC guidelines on filming wildlife which may help you with any deliberations

BBC - Editorial Guidelines - Guidance - Recording the Natural World - Guidance in Full

Mick
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Old November 27th, 2010, 09:03 AM   #4
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As one who has fed birds recreationaly for years and who has used both food and water to attract birds and other animals for recording this is something I have given a great deal of thought to. I think we all can readily understand the concerns that have been raised. I also think it is not enough to offer anecdotal accounts that “I’ve done it and nothing happened”. That is why I sought out long term scholarly studies on the subject. The best of these (my opinion) were done in the 1980s and published in the Journal of the National Parks. In my earlier response I said the practice was found to be “generally not a detriment”. I should, in fairness, have taken the time to write a few more words and point out that three areas of concern were noted. First, the introduction of exotic or “weed” species through the spillage and sprouting of feed. In the grand scheme of man’s global remixing of the fauna and flora this is probably small potatoes, but on a local level it can certainly be of great concern. The examples are far too numerous to list here. Second is an increase in the population of unintended species, for example rodents, at feeding stations. Third, feeding stations can be instrumental in helping species, both native and exotic, to move into new habitats where they may have unforeseen ecological consequences. In regards my story in an earlier thread about the White-winged Dove vastly increasing their range (at the expense of other dove species), they are certainly helped in this by bird feeders.

More recently another concern has been found- the spread of disease through improper hygiene at the feeding station. In North America thousands of songbirds are suffering from fungal foot infections spread by uncleaned birdbaths. The fungus only establishes itself in birdbaths which are first allowed to attain a coating of algae and the fungus seems to be a recent introduction from Southeast Asia. (As an aside, there was a recent nation-wide alarm caused by a concerned birder who spotted some of these infected birds and asked her vet what caused it. The vet, who was not an expert on birds, said, without examination, “Oh, it must be gout!” The birder then decided that the feeding of peanut butter must be the cause and started a national No Peanut Butter for Birds campaign. When the birds in question were finally examined it was found to be caused by the well studied fungus. When aflotoxin levels are high enough the feeding of peanut butter can certainly be dangerous to both birds and school children.) More generally, any time there is a concentration of individuals there is not only an increase in predation (as Mat noted) but also an increased possibility for transmission of diseases.

My remarks are about the feeding of birds specifically because they are the most widely fed wild animals on the planet (it is a multi-billion dollar industry), but they also apply to the feeding of any other organisms. I think it is unfortunate and unfair that Per Johan has been offered up as example simply because of his recent video. My personal feeling is that feeding is acceptable when it is culturally permitted and when practiced by a caring and responsible individual. I dare say none here will care to rebut that Per Johan has proven himself to be both caring and responsible. (And I do not think that this was Marj's intent.)

There is a further ethical issue which is unique to us as film makers (and I rather expect that this may be what Marj is getting at). I think it is unethical to portray rare or artificial behaviours recorded at feeding stations as normal behaviour in the wild. We see this done all the time, even by the big names in the industry. I think it should be viewed in context of the larger ethical issue of “nature faking”. This is why it is so important to study what is known about the natural history of our subjects both before and after we record them. With regards the Spotted Nutcrackers- I realize I may well be proved wrong in the long run, but I rather suspect that instead of an unnatural behaviour occurring only at feeder that this is a previously unobserved natural behaviour that may well have long gone undetected without the concentrating effect of the feeding station.

I welcome the opinions of all community members on this important subject and wish to thank Marj for raising the question.

@Mat- It is interesting that your Sparrowhawks are Corvids. Around here we call American Kestrel, a small falcon, Sparrowhawk!

Last edited by Mike Sims; November 27th, 2010 at 09:04 AM. Reason: miss spell
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Old November 27th, 2010, 09:26 AM   #5
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Hi Mike,

I think Mat was refering to the Nutcracker being a Corvid, and that corvids are known to take birds.


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Old November 27th, 2010, 09:46 AM   #6
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Oh, of course! Thanks Mick. Corvids are certainly opportunists. I wasn't terribly surprised by the behaviour.
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Old November 27th, 2010, 09:52 AM   #7
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I assume the question is not about whether it is ethical to feed wild creatures. That is a completely valid question but I will not attempt to answer that question here.

Instead I assume the question is about when it is unethical to use food and other means to attract wild things so they can be filmed. One could add to this question the maintenance of "wild" species so they can be filmed in restricted areas on ranches, etc. Or how about the maintenance of ponds as a means of attracting wildlife when they would otherwise move through normal ecological cycles to a swamp, then grassland, and then forest ultimately leaving no trace of a pond? Or the encouragement of plants that attract pretty creatures such as butterflies and hummingbirds?

So many facets to this question, but perhaps the key is to determine the purpose of the filming. If it is to film birds at a bird feeder, there would seem not be any ethical problem in that no deception is involved. If the feeder is disguised as a natural habitat and the birds presented as depicting natural behaviour so the viewer is unaware the birds are at an artificial feeder and probably not acting as a normal wild bird might act (and no information is offered to correct that misunderstanding), then yes, that probably crosses somekind of an ethical line.

On the other hand, wildlife documentaries are so full of unavoidable and often unintended deceptions (editing out uninteresting behaviour, adding foley sound or sound from a different time frame, using multiple individuals to represent a single individual) to tell an interesting and engaging story, it would be difficult to define a sharp and unmistakable "line" between ethical and unethical. Even the notion of a story usually has a slant that is familiar to human beings and may not be a correct interpretation of what the animal is thinking or feeling.

One could perhaps argue that nature documentaries in general tell the story of nature by whatever means it is best and most convincingly told. If the dictum:

"Do no harm."

is the guiding philosophy, then the degree to which that dictum has been maintained or ignored is a measure of whether the filmmaker has stepped over an ethical line or not. In some important ways, the definition of "harm" is personal, but it is also general and applies to nature as well as people and their understanding of nature as portrayed by the filmmaker.

Alan
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Old November 27th, 2010, 10:05 AM   #8
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I think it all comes down to intent.

If you buy fawns and stake them out to be fed on by predators you've crossed the line.

I feed birds year round here in Iowa, I have a large population of doves that visit my ground feeders. I heard a bird hit the window one afternoon even though I have UV decals etc to prevent that. I looked out and saw a hawk had grabbed a dove. The hawk flew off with the dove struggling to break free.

I felt horrible. But like Mat and others have said, I have to look at the whole picture. Is it better to feed the birds and keep the population strong or to stop and let them fend for themselves knowing that many will not make it through the hard Iowa winters?

So, I continue to feed them.

Now, if I caught doves, broke their wings then tied them down so they flap around and attract predators like other filmmakers I know have done, then I have a problem with your ethics.

I know there are natural water holes in Africa that draw predator and prey alike. I don't like it but that's nature's way.
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Old November 27th, 2010, 11:15 AM   #9
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More questions. What about the trick I told you guys about (which I learned from a big name wildlife cinematographer) of placing a mouse in a jar near the camera to keep owls from flying away. I’ve altered the bird’s behaviour- it didn’t fly away- and yet offered only the promise of a meal and not the reward of an actual meal. Although I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again, I think, surely this crosses some ethical boundary? What about using recorded calls- mating calls or the distress calls of wounded prey for example- or scents to attract animals? Where do we draw those lines? Are all these lines in the same place? Do no harm, for example. Kevin mentioned the offering of live animals for feed. With predation something’s always going to be harmed. What about supergluing the grasshopper to the branch for the chameleon to zap or the lizard to a branch under a light for the Tarsier? We’ve all seen that done more than once. Perhaps the line is a moving target. There’s so much to consider here.

Good thread.
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Old November 27th, 2010, 11:37 AM   #10
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Hey Mick. I just read those BBC Editorial Guidelines. Thanks for the link. I think that’s a good place to start but in places it made me want to laugh. Very large productions both by the BBC and endorsed by and shown on BBC regularly disregard the letter of some of those guidelines. Perhaps one question we should consider is “What are the consequences to ourselves and others when we do cross this increasingly confusing line?”
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Old November 27th, 2010, 03:32 PM   #11
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Last edited by Steve Siegel; November 27th, 2010 at 04:07 PM.
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Old November 27th, 2010, 04:27 PM   #12
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Hi All,

The BBC guidelines leave a great deal to the individual to decide what is appropriate. The BBC is in a position to make a final decision (and as Mike points out can also choose to ignore the guidelines) whether to broadcast the documentary or not. By the time the documentary is ready for the BBC to consider, the damage may already have been done; a post-hoc judgement, not a prerequisite to doing the work.

Some guidelines for the independent filmmaking community might help.

The research community faced a similar dilemma some decades ago and now has institutionalized animal care protocol, including for field studies. The judgement in the case of research is usually rendered on the basis of net benefit to society and nature. A negative judgement means the research is not funded and is not permitted.

Here are some relevant statements from the Canadian Council on Animal care when dealing with wildlife field studies (similar situation perhaps to wildlife documentary filmmaking). Keep in mind this is for research, not documentaries, but it could be modified to be in line with documentary ideals:

"Experimental procedures involving the capture, handling and release of wild animals are of special concern: lack of conditioning results in high degrees of stress in captured wild animals; therefore the necessity for capture, handling and/or administration of drugs or other compounds must be clearly established. Detailed descriptions of all pursuit, capture, handling and chemical restraint procedures, and explanations of their appropriateness, are essential. Criteria used to assess suitability for release must be clearly stated. Provision for recovery, treatment, or euthanasia of injured animals and disposal of carcasses must be specified."

"Wildlife research may involve the use of specialized holding areas and transportation of animals. The potential for injury to personnel and the animal subjects during these procedures should be minimized. The holding of wild animals in highly confined enclosures for extended periods should be avoided."

"Ecological disruption may result from the performance of some types of field studies. The type and degree of disruption expected (or its potential) must be indicated, e.g., the adverse consequences to survival and reproduction experienced by the herd, colony, or individual animal subject due to the study procedures."

The Council "attempts to reconcile public demands for medical, scientific and economic progress with demands for reduction in animal use, pain, and suffering. ... Protocol review provides a mechanism for achieving this "cost/benefit assessment" which involves consideration of relevant ethical, scientific, and social issues."

Hope this helps.

Alan
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Old November 27th, 2010, 06:39 PM   #13
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Thanks Alan. Steve, I found your words eloquent, well reasoned and completely unobjectionable. I am sorry you felt the need to remove them but I completely understand. At the beginning of this thread I naively thought we could have an open frank discussion of our opinions on this important subject. I was miserably wrong. I now fear Marj is vulnerable to the same unwarranted attack, based on her opinion, that, I am ashamed to say, I think Per Johan is somewhat justified in perhaps feeling has already happened to him. As for me, I thought I was clearly stating my opinions while encouraging others to re-examine theirs. Wrong again. I have now received two private messages through my website which I can only characterize as personal attacks based on statements I have made in this thread. Both correspondents drew wildly divergent (and to my mind incorrect) conclusions as to what my opinions must be. Neither person is in what I have come to think of as the UWOL family, although perhaps I have not yet been here long enough to make such a wide reaching generalization. I have done a great deal of soul searching today and I conclude that I will continue to feed, use bait, play calls and use attractants while remembering that each carries potential problems and vowing to try and minimize those problems. I further recognize that other people have differing opinions on this subject and vow to respect them while trying to be true to my own beliefs. In this I will ultimately fail and, when I do, I will pick myself up, dust myself off and get on. I suggest we all do so now. Let's take a step back, take a deep breath and agree to amicably disagree. I’m sure none of us wants Catherine to remember her first challenge as top hand to be the one we all got into an uncomfortable argument. I think we should ask the moderators to close this thread before anything untoward happens.

If I have now, or in the past, offended any of you I humbly and abjectly apologize.
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Old November 27th, 2010, 07:16 PM   #14
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I'd say you should simply try to film everything in a natural state. As a camera operator, you're an observer. Just as the viewer assumes is being depicted. I remember seeing some beautiful fox photos someone had made and then I found out they had a stick of butter right next to them to attract the fox within 10 feet.

The photographer cheated in my book.

I'm not a pro, nor do I have the wealth of experience that perhaps would open my eyes to situations where it is warranted. However, I feel rather strongly that wildlife ought to be filmed in as natural and undisturbed a state as possible.
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Old November 27th, 2010, 07:20 PM   #15
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I agree with Mike. We should be able to have this discussion without acting like gatekeepers. And you should all have done a much better job at handling yourselves both in the forum and in private, if not for the sake of common courtesy, at least to give Cat a chance to take the reins without kicking up a pile for her to deal with, right out of the gate.

Mirror time for everybody. Thread is locked.
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