Me with a lion cub

Here’s me with a baby lion, taken in 2009 during a behind-the-scenes tour with the director of Six Flags Great Adventure Safari in New Jersey. They were in the veterinary building because they had been rejected by their mother and were being hand-raised by safari staff.  Except for the occasional VIP tour, the vet clinic is not open to the public. We washed hands before and after holding the cubs, did not carry them anywhere or play with them on the floor, and there was no “official” photographer or extra fees for the photos.

These lions will never go into the wild, but eventually joined the rest of the lions (including their mother) in the main safari park.  Had their mother cared for them properly, they never would have ended up in the clinic and I would not have had a chance to hold one.

Why am I explaining all this?

Because the photo is my About Me picture and because Andrew Westoll, on his blog last week, addressed the issue of “me with” photos:

In wildlife conservation circles, these pics are called “Me With” photos, as in “Here’s me with a three-toed sloth,” or “Here’s me with a lion cub,” or “Here’s me with an orphan chimpanzee.” The worry is that these photos detract from the fundamental mission of conservation—which is, of course, to protect wildlife from the destructive hands of humans—by making people think it’s ok to cuddle with wild animals. The more people see images like this one, the thinking goes, the more people will think animals exist simply for our amusement.

The concern has to do with “normalizing” – that being exposed to photos of people with wild animals makes that behaviour seem normal.  Does that change our view of wildlife and how we should (or should not) relate to it? Does it set an expectation that it’s ok to hold, cuddle, feed, pat or otherwise engage with these animals physically?  And if so, so what? Just because a person wants to cuddle a baby polar bear or swim with a dolphin, that doesn’t make it so, does it?

Well, it may.  This need to engage with wildlife is driving a market for such opportunities and some of those jeopardize (or, at least, exploit) the very creatures we’re trying to protect.

Case in point: I was in Sri Lanka in 1999 as a volunteer for EarthWatch. One of the optional weekend side-trips was to an orphan elephant sanctuary. There we’d be able to pat the baby elephants and maybe even take part in bottle-feeding some of the younger ones. Our entrance fee would be used to help care for orphan elephants.

That sounded wonderful – well, that is until our expedition director pointed out that only an endless supply of baby elephants kept the place in business. In fact, while some of the elephants were legitimate rescues (orphans, injured, or abused animals), most of the elephants in the “orphanage” were a result of breeding the captive animals. (Later I learned that 50 of the 85 animals were born there.) So my Earth Watch group voted unanimously to skip that tour.

On the other hand, Andrew’s “me with an orphan chimp” really was a case of orphaned animals being rescued.  Andrew didn’t just waltz into Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center, hand over some cash and get handed a chimp baby for a photo op. No, he was there as a journalist visiting a legitimate organization that is working hard to save a species.  His hope (I am assuming) is to bring attention to the orphanage and the plight of these animals.  If Andrew’s photo attracts the support of people who might donate to the cause, then he’s done his job.

George and the gorillas

So what about this photo?

That’s my uncle on an eco-tour with a group from Stanford University to support Gorilla Doctors. My aunt explains:

Each day, the park’s trackers locate a habituated family, e.g., one of the 7 family groups whose progenitor had been habituated to human presence (but not human touch, etc.), by Dian Fossey. These progenitors had then shown subsequent generations that we could be trusted. Still, the park allows only 7 people at a time to see these habituated families and rotates tourists among the 7 [gorilla] families so they are not bothered by humans most of the time. The rest of the (non-habituated) families are left alone except for researchers.

Kids with a snowy owlet

Or this?

Taken right here at the library last week as part of an outreach program to educate children about birds of prey and make parents aware of the local raptor rehabilitation centre.  For this photo op fifty parents jumped up with cellphone cameras and fifty kids each got a “me with a baby owl” picture. Is that wrong?

To me, the value (or danger) of “me with” pictures depends on the circumstances and that means assessing the situation well before taking the picture.  The question is not, should I publish this picture? The question is, should I even be here?  What are the circumstances that put me and this animal together? Are they exploitative or dangerous to the animal? Is it right for me to be promoting or supporting this situation?

I’m talking about fifteen EarthWatch volunteers deciding not to visit a dubious elephant orphanage; about first understanding how the gorilla eco-tour works before signing up; and about a journalist volunteering at a chimpanzee sanctuary so that he can tell their story and educate people.

Looking back, I’ve got my share of “me with” pictures — many benign. Some more exploitative. One that stands out is “me with a dolphin” at Six Flags. I don’t even agree with keeping captive dolphins, so why did I enthusiastically embrace the idea of petting and having my picture taken with one?

Alright, I’ll just say it. It was about me. I wanted to pet a dolphin (oh my god, a dolphin!) and I wanted a picture of me with it.  That’s it.

So now I’m forced to rethink what that means.  I got what I wanted. Now, what did the dolphin get? What did the Safari Park (which is doing some very good conservation and education) get? What did I do with the information I learned that day? In the end, did I earn the privilege of kneeling down and running my hand across that dolphin or am I just one more person encouraging the exploitation of these animals?

I am sure I will never be as honourable or altruistic as Gloria Grow of Fauna Sanctuary (those are impossible shoes to fill), but after reading Andrew’s post, I will try to keep her words in mind. From his book, Chimps Of Fauna Sanctuary:

“Everyone who comes [to Fauna Sanctuary] is looking for something. Some people realize it and some people don’t. And if the chimps help you find it, then you’re a pretty lucky guy. They have the power to unlock things in us…But you know what the philosophers would say? The philosophers would say that we’re still using them. Even if we think we’re here to help, we’re still taking from the chimps. This is our relationship with the chimpanzee. Take, take, take, take, take.”