They Captured this Wildlife Photographer’s Heart!

Editors note: To see the following images and others along with data about each shot, click on the link at the end of this article.

I was spellbound.I couldn’t move as he slowly turned my way.The cougar was big and beautiful with the most incredible ice-blue eyes.He missed nothing, but paused and waited while I slowly raised my camera to begin documenting our meeting. No, I wasn’t in the wilderness being confronted by this wonderful creature.I was having my first experience with the controlled animals at the Triple D Game Farm in Kalispell, Montana.The encounter was so breathtaking that when I was given a chance to photograph their animals this year in the stunning red rocks of Utah, I jumped at the opportunity.

The Triple D Game Farm was founded by the Deist family (the father and two brothers) over twenty-five years ago.Today, the farm is still owned and operated by Jay Deist (one of the brothers).Originally, Jay’s father would rescue orphaned or injured animals in his job as a state game warden—a position he held for forty years.In those days, there weren’t many places where at-risk animals could be placed temporarily to be rehabilitated for release back into the wild whenever possible.So, the two Deist boys would take care of the animals their father brought home.

Jay’s first vision for Triple D was as a wolverine preserve.He wanted to be the first to propagate the species in captivity.Unfortunately, he wasn’t successful. Meanwhile, the wolverine was nationally recognized as an animal that needed protection as their numbers in the wild began to drop. The first experience the Deists had with wildlife photographers came when the television program Wild, Wild World of Animals called about doing a movie on wolverines.The Deists traded their contributions to the movie for a chain link fence for the Triple D. Their experience proved there was substantial need for a photographic game farm.In the 1980’s, Triple D was the first.

About the same time, the outstanding photography team of Erwin and Peggy Bauer changed the direction of wildlife photography.The Bauers publicly acknowledged that they used controlled animals in their images, and their work was superb.Other professional photographers followed suit.Today, many top professionals as well as other animal photographers use the quality resources of the Triple D.

Good animals are the key to successful game farm photography. Triple D is home to an abundant array.The animals need to be prime specimens, but they also need to have a good rapport with their trainers and be willing to work.Only positive training techniques such as rewards, kindness, and love are used at Triple D.The trainer is the liaison between the animal and the photographer.A good trainer will know how to position the animal to allow the photographer to capture extraordinary images and to meet any special requests. However, the animal’s welfare and fatigue factors determine the length of the session and all of the activities.The trainers at Triple D never push the animal past a safe level of activity and will not tolerate any animal being mistreated, abused, or overworked.The factors that are important to keeping animals healthy and willing to work are clean and proper living quarters, clean and proper food and water, adequate veterinary care, and no abuse of any kind in either their living conditions or training procedures.

When I first visited the Triple D, I came with mixed feelings.I’d seen a number of small and large zoos where the animals paced for hours, looked bad, and endured dirty quarters and water.I was concerned about what I might find.My first impression when I entered the Triple D compound—especially the living quarters for the animals–was that there was no smell and no pacing.The animals came to see who I was and exhibited curiosity, but they didn’t appear to be stressed.They seemed to be healthy and in good shape.

How to Photograph Controlled Animals

Once you decide to photograph controlled animals, how can you create the best images possible?First, it’s essential that the photographer knows what to expect from the animal.New photographers want poses–the classic image–but, with experience, you learn to photograph behavior.Many photographers don’t do their homework as well as they should.When photographing animals, wild or controlled, learn something about their natural behavior beforehand.Learn the characteristics that allow them to lead successful lives in the wild.What do they eat?When do they sleep?Why do they den in certain areas?How do they protect themselves?The animal will telegraph its intentions, and if you recognize the indications, you can anticipate and be ready for an “action” shot.

Today we have outstanding animal shows on television.Watch those programs and look for several things:First, what do the cinematographers show the animal doing?Is the animal behaving in a “normal” way? Then, check out the photographer and see if you can tell what’s happening.What lens is being used (close, telephoto) and from what angle is the animal being photographed?Look at the program with a critical eye and decide in advance what your guidelines will be when it’s your turn to do the photography.

A Photography Experience in Utah

Our group was small—only nine photographers.The group needs to be small to keep distractions to a minimum.We photograph the animal as the trainer works with it in a large enclosure.One of the side benefits of a Triple D experience for a novice photographer is that s/he is frequently working side-by-side with high profile professionals, and a sense of camaraderie is often present.Everyone works independently but with a sense of togetherness.We share the joy in seeing the animals in beautiful and natural settings.

Our first Utah session began at six o’clock in the morning with an orientation meeting. Triple D recognizes that there are dangers associated in filming any wildlife.In response, Jay has developed numerous rules that must be followed by both staff and client to protect both the client and the animals.There are no exceptions.Each species requires slight variations of the rules during a shoot.The bigger the animal, the more safety concerns and rules are necessary.It’s important to remember that all of the animals at Triple D are wild.They may look trained and are–to a point, but they are not tame.They will not do circus-type tricks.The trainer controls them, but they are still wild animals.

Safety Guidelines and Their Rationale

Animals–especially big animals–look upon all creatures—even human ones–as either a threat or a meal.You don’t want to be either.What kinds of movements would threaten an animal?Signs of aggression, such as sudden and somewhat violent moves, unusual noises, and direct eye contact (don’t forget that your lens makes a substantial “eye”) would qualify.Also, movement toward the animal may be perceived as a challenge.So, the first rule that we were told is to remain still and quiet when the animals are loose.We were instructed to stay in a relatively close grouping and not to make funny noises or to try to call the animals in any way.We needed to stay with the group and not wander away.

A potential meal may run, scream, squeal, or exhibit some other type of behavior that triggers a “dinner response” in an animal.When animals are hunting or tracking dinner, they move stealthily until they know they can take their prey.Then, they may suddenly pounce.This attack triggers a fear response in the prey; it usually tries to make a run for it.Thus, our rule is not to make sudden moves or to try to avoid the animals by running or making evasive maneuvers.The trainers will keep the animals under control, but the photographers need to stay calm as well.Also, dinner is usually comes in smaller “packages,” so we were instructed not to bend over, crouch down, or turn our backs on the animal while reaching for equipment.We were always to stand up and face the animal.If we had to bend over to reach something in our pack, we needed to quietly ask for permission.

In addition, we were reminded that no one was to have any food in their pack or on their person—including breath mints and/or chewing gum. Also, smoking, perfume, or artificial scents in general were forbidden.We needed to follow the trainer’s directions explicitly and, if instructed, to leave our gear behind and exit the enclosure immediately. But the really difficult rule to follow (and it was a major temptation) was never to touch the animals. No matter how cute, fuzzy and tame they might appear, they were all wild animals and we could not forget that even for a second.

In a game farm, it’s important to keep in mind that you’re in a controlled environment with staff watching the animals as well as the photographers. They need to be sure that everyone is operating in a safe manner. Only the trainer directs or speaks to the animals.The trainer is in control and will help the animal “work” for the photographer.If you see an action you might like, you can quietly ask the trainer if it’s possible.The staff at Triple D does all they can to be accommodating as long as the request won’t jeopardize the client or animal.

How Controlled Are They?

One of the concerns I had before I arrived at the Triple D was the nature of the training.I certainly didn’t want to photograph bears pushing a ball with their noses or sitting up and waving.At the Triple D Game Farm, the trainers attempt only to reinforce an animal’s normal behavior.They don’t teach tricks.They allow the animal to function normally with the least amount of human intervention.For example, the animals are taught to hold a position.The reward is always positive–either in the form of a “treat” or a “good girl.” Minimum human interaction is stressed.

The other question that I had was during a shoot, how would we manage to keep animal eye contact and still stay within the safety guidelines?The trainers move so that the gaze of the animal appears to be direct eye contact with the photographers.The trainers are very conscious of getting in the way of the photography.As they anticipate or set up a behavior, they indicate to you what their experience tells them that the animal is going to do.They are also aware of the animal’s condition and will warn you when the animal is becoming tired or hot.Our sessions were always early or late in the day when the temperature was the coolest, because that’s when the animals work well.Jay Deist said it best.“We know the settings, background and light.We also know that if we put a photographer in that particular setting with that light, they will come out with good photographs. That is what we like to see.”

Helpful Equipment

I like the simplicity of using a vest during a shoot.I left my pack in my vehicle or just outside of the enclosure with replacement supplies I could access between sessions.I strongly suggest using a camera vest rather than a pack in the enclosures with the animals.You don’t have to hunt for anything.It’s right in your pocket.Use one pocket for unused film and another pocket for used film.Take your film out of the boxes and containers so that you can pick it up and load the camera.Know your equipment.If you’re going to change lenses, be sure you know how to do it quickly.Your batteries should be fresh, and you should keep new ones at hand.

The following list represents the equipment I took into the enclosures when I was filming:

  • Lots of film … usually ten to fifteen fresh rolls
  • Extra fresh batteries for my camera and flash
  • An extra camera– just in case I had a major breakdown
  • Lenses:28 – 80 mm; 100 – 300 mm; 1.4x extension;

I had my main camera on a tripod.Tripods leave your hands free to reach for film and to reload or change lenses.Using a tripod is easier on your arms and better than handholding or using a monopod.

The flash unit was on a special extension rack to lift it off the camera.(This prevents the flash from reflecting back in the animal’s eyes, resulting in red or green eye.)A flash is important to get a “catch light” in the animal’s eye and to fill in the shadows just a bit.

Remember, it’s essential that you know your camera and gear and are well organized.Sometimes the action comes very quickly, and you barely have time to respond without wondering how to do something.(Do your homework here, too.)

Reflecting on the Shooting Sessions

It’s difficult to describe how the photographic sessions work and how special the opportunity in a game farm really is.Instead, it might be best for me to share some of my photographs and the comments of other participants in our group.

“All of the interactions between staff and photographers (were) very friendly and every attempt was made to accommodate the needs and wishes of the photographers–within reason and within the animals’ best interest.The animals really come first, and that is what makes them a delight to work with and a joy to photograph….The trainers/staff–although they said they didn’t know photography, they did know what backgrounds looked great and when the light was good.This, obviously, comes from doing lots of shoots with top professional photographers.” Dick Francis; Scottsdale, Arizona

“It’s like being on a big game hunt without the inconveniences of traveling, tracking and living out of a pack. It is a working cooperative between the animals and the trainer.We, the photographers, are just privileged to come along for the ride….The animals get tired and overheated.It was important to work early and late in the day to accommodate them.And, what you don’t realize in the beginning is that the concentration is so intense in the sessions that you get exhausted as well.Actually you are so excited about seeing them and photographing that you don’t realize how much your back and feet hurt until the day is over.”Rich Richmond; Flagstaff, Arizona

“ This was very well organized.They have the training down to a science.Animals come first but people come second.Everyone needs to be comfortable.The trainers know how to provide the maximum opportunities to get great photographs.” Scott Elko; Oakley, California

He is comfortable working with the animals and they are comfortable with him.This comes from hours of interaction.Triple D caters to both the pro and the amateur photographer and offers them the same amount of comfort and photographic opportunities…The Black bear was hesitant about coming out of his trailer.The trainers were willing to wait for the animal.They didn’t touch, prod, or scold but waited patiently using only the positive reward and kindness techniques the animal has been trained with.Because the bear had a relationship with Rick the trainer, the bear responded to the positive rewards.It was wonderful to see that he always acted like a bear.” Gerald and Buff Corsi (top professional nature photographers); Santa Rosa, California

I like coming to Triple D because not only do they try to be accomodating but also they really care about whether I am getting good shots….Photographers who are new to this kind of experience should expect to be very excited.It will take a little time to settle down.Remember to do portraits and to include some of the background environment.It is a great place to learn from other photographers and to have fun doing something you love.Be sure to bring more film than you think you could possibly use and to overshoot.Sometimes it is just the look in the animal’s eye that makes the difference between a good photo and a very, very special one.” Aaron Teitel; Potomac, Maryland / Merrill J. Cohen, MD; Potomac, Maryland

A Final Word of Caution

Don’t confuse the behavior in a game farm with behavior of animals in the wild.In the wild, you can’t expect to do what you’re able to do in a controlled setting.There’s no way to be within three feet of an animal in the wilderness and be safe.Wild animal photography is highly specialized, and it takes years to develop good photographic techniques for this field.It also takes huge and very expensive cameras and lenses to do it safely.A point-and-shoot or even a 300 mm lens just won’t keep you far enough away.When a wilderness photographer does something stupid, and the animal responds in a normal, wild way, the human may have issued a death sentence. While you might not have a problem, the next camera-wielding idiot that attempts to photograph the animal may have a terrible problem.Animals in the wild that exhibit aggression and hostility toward man are subject to severe measures. Please, for your safety and that of the animal, don’t do endanger yourself and a wild creature.Instead, have a wonderfully wild experience at the Triple D Game Farm where you can see and photograph prime animals in natural settings—safely and with great results.

By Noella Ballenger

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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