Are Social Media Sites Fueling a Growing Disrespect for Wildlife?

Candice Gaukel Andrews by Candice Gaukel Andrews | November 21st, 2011 | 25 Comments
topic: Eco Travel

zodiac with whale

Two kayakers paddling off Redondo Beach, south of Los Angeles, got the thrill of a lifetime recently — the kind that most of us will never experience. They met a blue whale, the largest creature on Earth.

The 50-foot cetacean came within arm’s reach of the small kayak. But, not content with this closest of encounters, Rick Coleman, one of the kayakers, plunged into the water for a face-to-face session with the whale — all the while keeping his video camera running. Of course, that video soon appeared on YouTube and the inevitable interviews on TV news shows followed.

In many of those interviews, the Colemans (Susan Coleman was the second kayaker) made the comment that it is important to remember to always approach wild animals with the “utmost respect.”

But is pulling your kayak up to a blue whale and then jumping into the water next to it showing respect for wildlife — or is it more indicative of a desire for renown?

Taking chances for the camera’s lens


A bison decides when it feels threatened; not the one seeking a closer look. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

Wanting to have close encounters with animals — and capturing those moments for posterity — isn’t new, of course. As long as I can remember — and some say going back to the 1940s — there has been an urban myth circulating about the camera-crazy parent at Yellowstone National Park. The story goes that this mom or dad smeared honey (or peanut butter or any of a number of different spreads, depending on the version you hear) on his or her child so that a “cute” picture of a bear licking the youngster could be snapped. Although this particular story has never been proven, myths are usually somewhat rooted in reality.

But in the last few years, the soaring popularity of reality TV shows and social media sites has really upped the capturing-dangerous-wildlife-encounters ante to a whole new level.

Not long ago, in 2006, television’s famous “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin died when he got too close to a stingray while shooting what would have been a new TV show about the Great Barrier Reef. Irwin’s heart was pierced by the animal’s serrated, poisonous spine as he swam with it while the cameras were rolling. At the time, a witness to the filming said that Irwin was taped pulling the barb from his chest moments before losing consciousness forever. Would Irwin have attempted swimming so close to that stingray if it weren’t for the cameras and the TV show? Of course, the show was never aired. Queensland state police secured the video as evidence for the coroner’s inquiry.

False bravery

As recently as two years ago, a woman who wanted a “closer look” at a bison in Yellowstone National Park started stalking toward it — getting far too close per park regulations — while operating her video camera. The bison charged. The video was posted on YouTube.


Kayaks provide for close encounters with marine animals, but sometimes that’s the problem. ©Valerie Wimberly

As long as a decade ago, in the waters of southeast Alaska and Prince William Sound, the National Marine Fisheries Service had to issue mandatory regulations requiring that people stay at least 100 yards away from humpback whales. A growing number of people on tour and recreational boats were throwing objects or food at Steller sea lions and harbor seals in order to produce some sort of reaction that they could photograph.

If you need more proof that people do dumb things in the presence of wildlife all in the name of getting the perfect shot, becoming a reality TV star, or causing a “hit” sensation on social media sites, just check out the Facebook page titled “People who get too close to wild animals.”

In his “tips for getting closer to wild animals,” nature photographer Galen Leeds says it’s important to remember that if you get too close, any animal can feel threatened. Maintain your distance. The use of a telephoto lens is wise. Just because you can get closer doesn’t mean that you should. Some states, such as Washington, are even creating Wildlife Viewing Ethics policies.

Do you think that the desire to post extraordinary videos on social media sites has made us disrespectful of wildlife — and is causing us to take foolish risks we wouldn’t otherwise consider?

Happy trails,


Explore nature and watch wildlife from a safe distance on!

Feature photo: In the thrill of the moment, it’s hard to balance our desire to “get the shot” with keeping a respectful distance. ©Colin McNulty


  1. I most certainly do. I don’t think the peer pressure is any greater than having a throng of people around you, though. It’s just that now you can always have a throng of people around you.

    Jack | November 22nd, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  2. Probably. Now any yahoo with a camera considers themselves an outdoor or wildlife photographer and go to ever greater extremes to create images. They should spend more time on fundamentals and preparation rather than risk-taking.

    Art Hardy | November 27th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  3. It’s certainly possible to draw unwanted attention to an area or species which, in reality, would best be left alone. We have the unintentional ability to love a place to death. There’s fine line between bringing attention to the spectacular wonders of nature with the intention of raising awareness, and causing the disturbance to the natural setting or wildlife either by the photographer or by the attention the exposure brings. There must be balance, respect, and preservation in our approach to wildlife and wild places. Hopefully, all photographers, wildlife tourists, and other outdoor enthusiasts will understand the fragile connection we have to the natural world and behave appropriately.

    Ernie | November 29th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  4. This has been a concern of my own. Even, I must confess, I have pushed beyond what I feel is the boundaries in order to capture a photo or video. Also as a Registered Maine Guide I have felt pressure from clients who want to get that trophy shot. (and I am speaking in photography terms)

    I believe that the answer to your question is in a general term yes. But to launch a defense for many, they do not have a real understanding of the consequences of their actions. It is up to us professionals to help people reach an understanding and to lead by example.

    Shannon | November 29th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  5. I second your concern. It also sends a wrong message to our children that wildlife is there for our enjoyment (only), preferably hands-on, too close and/or without respect. To balance this I like to read about the preparations, the patience and technical skills photographers and producers of nature documents have taken. It makes it all the more interesting to have knowledge of the hardship photographers have to endure for a perfect photo.

    Mindful Drawing | November 29th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  6. I try not to say exact locations of where I photograph, so that it does not increase the amount of people that will go to that site. I keep the locations very general.. When you give exact locations, then it brings more people in, which brings more litter, trampling of plant life, etc….I know it is hard to imagine, but there are folks that love wildlife, but do not watch their habits (leave plastic water bottles behind and their granola and/or candy bar wrappings, go into areas that clearly say “no trespassing area is in habitat restoration”, etc…. What I take into an area with me, I take out with me and leave the area clean.

    Bonnie Jean | November 29th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  7. I agree with Bonnie, In my part of Canada it is a continuous problem with litter and there is always the problem with those that will molest wildlife.

    David Thompson | November 29th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  8. I often take risks to get shots, but I do so with an experienced and practical knowledge of wildlife behavior. The real danger is with people who approach wildlife with a romanticized or Disney idea of wild creatures and their motives.

    Ron | November 29th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  9. Social media is simply the latest in a long trend in technological development that has lead us to converging to this point. Thus it is not singularly to blame. Social media has simply lowered the barrier to publish self generated content. However, the fact that the barrier to even generate such content has also been lowered, why not equally inquire about that contribution? Thus the question could be also asked if the availability of technologies that generate such self generated content in the form of digital photography and ubiquitous cell phone cameras are not equally/more to blame? For that matter, is the easy availability and relative low price of plastic kayaks today a problem by even providing increased accessibility to wildlife such as blue whales, compared to my grandfather who had to build his own using stretched canvas? The issue is complex and interwoven beyond any one factor.

    Kevin L. | November 29th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  10. Forrest Gump said it best, “Stupid is as stupid does.”

    Nature has a way of deal with this that goes back to the dawn of time. When a hunter-gatherer got too close to the snarling bear he became the hunted …and the gathered. Disrespect turned into disemboweled.

    If people want to take these chances no amount of regulation or prohibitive signage can stop them. Just don’t label the reacting animal a “rogue” that needs to be “eliminated”.

    Fritz | November 29th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  11. Professional wildlife photographers and film makers have been doing that for years. Staging the photo, an worse bringing two animals together-predator-prey to film the resulting fight.

    Allen | November 29th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  12. Are you saying that the numbers of social media photographers will increase the above. If so, in the Reptile and Amphibian world they prefer to show off a new herp they just got to sell, or bought, Them interacting with it. There is a Field Herping group whose focus is on finding the herp, getting a good photo record of it, and leaving it. How many actually do that is a good question. But their numbers compared to the people who show off photos of their pets or new snake morph is really low.

    Allen | November 29th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  13. Even without Social Media the photos would have been taken, but Social Media leads to more awareness and more eyes to protect these sites and get attention when they do not get the attention they deserve. You can’t trust main stream media anymore, if it ever should have been trusted, now every community and every individual has a voice.

    Mark | November 30th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  14. I hope not. I appreciate unique (and “ordinary”) photos of wildlife and wild places, and I think they can be very inspiring. Such a photo might provide someone with the desire to get out and see what is in nature, or to work towards a conservation goal. As long as the photo is obtained in an friendly, respectful manner (long lenses, far away! And with a trained professional if possible!), then I am okay with it.

    Elizabeth | November 30th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  15. Very insightful Fritz. It is not the task of government to legislate good judgement. If it were, we would be in deep $%^# indeed. Too frequently, do-gooders who believe their view should be imposed on everyone, get in the way of natures only tool to sort the wheat from the chaf. The only unfortunate thing about an idiot being eaten by a wild predator, is that they discover that we are easy prey and that we taste good.

    Eric | November 30th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  16. Interesting question Candice. Personally, I haven’t noticed a rash of wildlife photos showing up on the few sites I visit regularly. I have seen people do some pretty stupid things in the past when we were using film instead of digital equipment. This may be something to watch over time. If it is happening, how would we change it? Education is probably the only way, and as natural resource specialists we don’t seem to do a very good job of that. I implicate myself in that by the way.

    Jim | November 30th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  17. I do not think that social media causes us to take risks we would not normally have taken to get close to wildlife, even if dangerous to us or the subject. Before FB, etc people were feeding bears from their cars in the National Parks and getting mauled. If anything I think that the rapid ability to spread the word about the risks via social media may make people reconsider before attempting some dangerous act. There are always going to be people that are sure it can never happen to them and they are going to do dangerous things regardless if it makes it to there profile page or not.

    David | December 1st, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  18. Bragging on Facebook or any of the other platforms, is not a new phenomenon. I think the disrespect goes way beyond Wildlife though.

    John | December 2nd, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  19. Nice article. I’ve always found it crazy how tv hosts of nature shows talk about having respect for wildlife while at the same time attempting to touch every creature they come across

    Dakota | December 4th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  20. I believe social media doesn’t make a decent (ethically at least) photographer do things they shouldn’t, it just gives those who would be doing it anyway an alternative outlet.

    Richard | December 6th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  21. Very true to a certain extent. Most of them are trying to be a hero.

    Sajid | December 7th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  22. I think I agree with Sajid. But I think it already happened before, as people were just trying to act like a hero for their friends. Or didn’t know or thought it wouldn’t happen to them.
    I think there will always be a certain group of people not respecting living creatures.
    But it could also be the other way around: documentaries like Planet Earth can make people more aware and I think more people can afford better equipment now, so they don’t need to be as close any more.
    As for Jim: maybe we all should say something if we actually see people doing stuff like that? Like with these horrible film of some guy throwing a dog from a bridge. People all over the world were shocked and rejected it.

    Bianca | December 7th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  23. As in so many different ways, the exceptions are the rule. I believe ethics and individual values drive individual actions. We each make choices and at the same time, hopefully understand and are accountable for the consequences of those choices. I believe there is a need for increased awareness of the individual responsibility we each have to taking responsibility for our own decisions, choices, and their consequences.

    Peter | December 9th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  24. Kind of like the gold rush times. We hear that there is gold and everyone runs to get some. Many of our species have become cityfied. They have no regard for the nature they observe because they do not understand it. We that want to protect these special places spend much of our time repairing the damage done by so many who do not even know they left a footprint.

    James B. | December 18th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  25. News organizations and TV are likely more dangerous, especially here in Japan, they make every natural spot feel like a day drive and bring your picnic basket. The people in charge of the site are so happy to get noticed, but fail to realize, the flood gates are being opened.

    Mark | December 18th, 2011 | Comment Permalink

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