Love wildlife photos? There’s a good chance they weren’t shot in the wild

May 01, 2017, 03:00 PM

A wolf with lush, black fur and piercing yellow eyes is sitting on a stack of rocks in the woods, staring down a group of photographers less than 10 feet away. Whenever its head turns, camera shutters fire off like machine guns. The wolf’s handler asks the photographers how they plan to explain their luck at capturing these seemingly once-in-a-lifetime images. “The story is, you staked out for four weeks, out in the wilderness,” one of the photographers jokes. The real story is that the wolf is a three-year-old captive named Zeus, and the photographers only drove out to meet him this morning, from their comfortable lodge five minutes away. Zeus was raised and trained at a game farm called Minnesota Wildlife Connection, where his job is to pose for photographers and videographers who want to create images of animals in the wild.

Search the internet for extraordinary animal images like a cougar leaping across two pillars of sandstone, a wolf calling for the moon, or a grizzly bear frolicking in the snow, and you’ll find dozens of nearly identical photos featuring captive animals just like Zeus. Similar to the game farms that offer captive wild animals for hunting, photography game farms offer captive wild animals for photos. Such farms are controversial, posing questions about both the integrity of the photography and the welfare of the animals involved. But they are also convenient tools of the trade for commercial photographers, whose images—in ads, documentaries, viral animal pictures, and even wildlife photography competitions—you’ve probably seen and maybe even shared, unaware of their origin.

Zeus’s handler, 20-year-old McKenzie Greenly, runs Minnesota Wildlife Connection with her father, Lee. She grew up with wolf and coyote cubs sleeping in her childhood bed, she says. The farm is currently home to a black bear, five cougars, 20 wolves, 46 foxes, and a 2,000-pound bison, along with a bevy of smaller animals. One snowy weekend in January, at one of the farm’s group photography workshops, Lee Greenly came to an open field with a pack of three impatient juvenile wolves leashed on metal chains. A dozen or so visiting photographers lined up a few meters from the animals, forming a human cordon, cameras in hand. The wolves were released to run toward McKenzie, standing less than 100 feet away. “Good boy! Good girl!” she called, waving frozen chunks of meat. As the wolves dashed toward her, the photographers clicked away, one sitting on a foldable stool, another resting his equipment on a monopod.

Although never trained as photographers, the Greenlys are keenly aware of what it takes to give their clients a good photo. McKenzie knows to nudge a cougar forward so its eyes catch a glint of sunshine. Sometimes, she reminds photographers to let her know if she’s in the frame, and even recommends the specific lenses photographers should use for a shoot. Later, the photographers shoot close-up portraits of an adult wolf posed with his head between two birch trees; a cougar coaxed to sit atop a fallen tree, its long tail hanging elegantly below; and foxes teased to chase each other in and out of a hollow log.

Like all felines, the wild cats respond somewhat less enthusiastically to instruction than the canines. Asked to walk along a fallen log, one bobcat instead jumped off and hid under a nearby ATV until Lee caught it with a fishing net. Once animals have performed, McKenzie picks them up and hugs them, smothering each in kisses. In a baby voice, she tells them how proud she is of them.

Before getting into the game farm business over 30 years ago, Greenly worked part-time as an animal caretaker at a zoo in Hinckley, Minnesota. The zoo owner saw that he was good at the job and started giving him animals to train during winter months. Eventually, Greenly bought some animals from the zoo and started breeding and training them on his own, sometimes selling new cubs back to the zoo or renting them out. A few years later, some pho...