If you haven't seen the tempest growing in Wyoming, a fox named 15M was euthanized this week because of its growing habituation to humans. You might be asking, why is this news on a photo-centric site? Throw in an as-of-recently much-maligned, world-famous photographer and maybe you're interested?
Let's start with these assumptions and rules:
- Nobody should be afraid to point out what looks like wrongdoing, even if the alleged wrongdoer is a famous photographer;
- Whistleblowers, for lack of a better word, should not be punished for speaking out if their intention is an honest one;
- We should not rush to judgment, we should make sure we get all the facts; and,
- We should do our best to avoid the cancel culture that comes part and parcel with a rush to judgment.
Colter Bay Incident From Taxis' Point of View
According to Jackson Hole photographer Tiffany Taxis, David Yarrow's crew members lured a wild fox using food for a photograph. For those of you not into wildlife photography, this is a no-no. Taxis snapped an image of a portion of the interaction between Yarrow's crew and the foxes.
Yarrow is the photographer on the ground. One of his crew is holding something in his hand and what appears to be a bag above his head while a pair of red foxes flirt with Yarrow's camera. Taxis maintains that just before this moment the crew member in blue dropped something on the ground. Many who understand what wildlife luring is might assume that this was food.
Taxis explained to me that just before she snapped this image, Yarrow turned to the crew member in blue and said something she couldn't quite hear.
I think that Taxis was a bit intimidated at the time. There were several men in Yarrow's crew and Taxis was shooting alone. Those are my words, not hers. I think Taxis is brave for calling out a world-famous photographer. Ethical wildlife photographers do not do lure animals. Luring animals with food or comfort can change their innate behavior and potentially habituate them.
A Quick Side Trip to McDonald's
There is also a rumor on various social media channels about the foxes being fed Big Macs. I've had a chance to talk to truth_animal through Instagram. truth_animal shared a few screenshots from Joe Brandl's Facebook feed. Brandl is the figure with the cowboy hat and duster in Taxis' image. These screenshots show Brandl commenting that the fox was fed Big Macs and joking that the fox had used up its three strikes and is out. I'm assuming that's a euphemism for its eventually culling. I reached out to Brandl for comment and he confirmed that his comments were a joke. Perhaps not all that funny to wildlife photographers or conservationists, but a joke nonetheless. To be clear, Taxis did not mention McDonald's burgers in our conversation. Her view wasn't clear enough for that. For many talking about habituated foxes facing euthanasia because of human and animal interaction won't be seen as funny. Humor is a fickle and a time-sensitive thing.
To be clear, Yarrow is responsible for what Brandl does on his set, but he can't be held responsible for off-the-cuff comments made by Brandl after a shoot.
Director on Set
I've written about Yarrow before and have no qualms maintaining that his involvement with Animals of Montana ("AoM") was a bad thing for animal welfare. Which, for the record, he has acknowledged. Yarrow has gone on record stating that he will not use animal sanctuaries in the United States again.
As the photographer in charge of a shoot, I'm convinced that the buck stops with Yarrow. So, when a tiger managed to cause a fuss in Detroit's old Packard Plant on one of his shoots, any responsibility is Yarrow's. Just like here, the actions of his crew are his responsibility.
Hearing Taxis' story, I reached out to Yarrow for comment.
Colter Bay Incident From Yarrow's Point of View
Yarrow told me point blank that he did not instruct his crew to lure the fox with food. In a no-names conversation, the crew member in the blue coat told me that he did not drop food.
Yarrow explained to me that he was out at Colter Bay to shoot images for his story of the American West project.
According to Yarrow, the idea to shoot the foxes was a passing thought as he wrapped the editorial shoot.
Yarrow does admit that he and his crew clicked their fingers or flicked snow to get the fox to briefly look up.
This may put me on the wrong side of certain wildlife photographers, but I've shifted in my seat or clicked my tongue to encourage a lion or polar bear to look my way. I'm not stomping, I'm not feeding, I'm shifting. If Yarrow is telling the truth, I'm not surprised. With foxes darting all over, a snap or click might attract them for just a brief moment.
Where Are We Now?
The Jackson Hole News & Guide has reported that the fox in question, 15M, was euthanized this week.
According to Teton Park Science and Resource Chief Gus Smith, quoted in the JHN&G, the Park has been looking to capture and euthanize this specific fox since the middle of last year. Apparently, 15M has jumped into occupied golf carts or onto picnic tables being used for picnics.
All reports suggest that the fox was not euthanized because of the interaction with Yarrow's crew.
In reference to the incident, Jamie Joseph of Saving the Wild has written
Yarrow is not the only person to blame, but someone with such a large following should be setting a good example, rather than create a movement of photographers who bait wild animals and exploit them through staged photography where they are forced to live in cages the size of prison cells.
I completely agree.
It's my impression that Yarrow does as well. I could sense contrition in Yarrow. In fact, he told me that he believes that he can feel contrition even if he didn't do anything wrong. He went on to say:
. . . people see me as someone they have regard for, it is imperative that I always conduct myself, leaving no room for ambiguity, to exemplary standards. Last week, I Ieft room for ambiguity. I can be crystal clear that we were not luring.
Now What, Cancel Yarrow?
The Parks Service is investigating the luring incident. They have not issued any type of finding or release.
I have no doubt that Taxis is sharing a story that she believes in. So, until the investigation is finished, until we have firm proof of what happened, do we just lock Yarrow up and throw away the key?
Even if you consider Yarrow's historical record and involvement with AoM, that doesn't have any bearing on this investigation. Yarrow would be the first to say that he's learned from AoM. Saving the Wild and Yarrow even put out a joint press release to specifically note Yarrow's mea culpa in relation to AoM.
Why push Yarrow to be better if we're not going to give him the chance to do so?
Do we just cancel Yarrow? Or do we give him the due process we afford everyone else?
I find it interesting that although we live in an increasingly complicated and nuanced world, we've drifted into a polarized approach to almost everything. I'm willing to see the gray. I'm willing to make room for ambiguity as long as we maintain a certain floor of civility; in this case, a certain floor of ethics and conservation.
All images provided by Tiffany Taxis and David Yarrow.