Let’s talk about selfies. I promise, this will relate to hiking and nature. First of all, in a lot of ways, I’m “pro-selfie.” There are a lot of people arguing that the selfie generation is becoming increasingly vain and superficial. A lot of that may be true. These days, most of our photos end up in public spaces on the internet, and we craft online identities that may not be an exact reflection of reality. However, I also believe that people are becoming increasingly comfortable in their own skin, which I think is good. There are many campaigns and initiatives to help people feel comfortable with themselves, regardless of color, shape, size, and figure, for both men and women. I think…I hope…people are becoming more accepting and shattering stigmas that are associated with body types. I believe in previous times, people have been self conscious about being in pictures. Seeing a picture of yourself is a jarring experience. We mostly only see ourselves in reflections in mirrors, a reverse image of what we actually look like. We become accustomed to our reverse selves. When we see ourselves in a picture, all of the minute details of our bodies are flipped. While this may seem negligible, it completely conflicts with the way we see ourselves. But now, through selfies, people are excited to see their true image in photo. They’re owning it by not only happily appearing in photos, but by taking the photos themselves, at all times of day in any state of being or location. I think it’s great.
Sometimes though, selfies can go bad. Selfies go bad when they become a behavior that conflicts with wildlife and causes negative human-wildlife interaction. You may be asking yourself, “who does that?” Turns out, quite a few people. In fact, a recreation area near Denver, CO called Waterton Canyon (managed by a Denver Water and the U.S. Forest Service) had to shut itself to visitors in August of 2015 because people were trying to take too many selfies in close range of bears. This article (complete with videos and bear selfies) does a great job explaining this circumstance in Colorado. It also explains the breadth of the problem. Warnings against selfies were announced in Lake Tahoe, CA too. There are increasing numbers of gorings by bison in Yellowstone National Park because people are getting too close in photo attempts. #bearselfie and #bisonselfie are trending hashtags on social media. People are literally coming within 5 or 6 feet of massive, strong, and defensive wild animals, just for the “perfect” selfie! In fact, just a few months ago, my friend Danielle was hiking along Hoh River Trail in Olympic National Park when she witnessed groups of people attempt to approach elk for an up close photo. She warned them not to. They ignored her, got too close, and the elk charged. Thankfully, everyone got away unscathed. The linked articles above say it all. I recommend reading them.
For whatever reason, many people are freakishly comfortable with the idea of approaching wildlife. This isn’t something new. For example, bears are opportunistic eaters. They’ll find food anywhere, and many times that includes trash cans and garbage dumps. Before all garbage was hauled off site from national parks, the parks themselves would operate their own dumps. Naturally, bears would find their way over. Watching a bear tear up a trash bag must be quite a show. Well, humans are opportunistic too, and took advantage of this bear behavior from about 1890 until the 1940’s. Yellowstone National Park in fact set up bleacher style seating adjacent to its trash bins and garbage dumps so visitors could watch as bears, both black and grizzly, displayed their use of senses and physical gifts in search of food. People would sit in awe and excitement as bears would tear into heaps of trash in search of the “oh so delicious” half eaten cheeseburger or campers’ unused bacon from the morning breakfast. Rangers on horseback would narrate what was happening. They were advertised and promoted as “bear shows.” Not surprisingly, these “bear shows” went awry many times, and angry bears inflicted injury or death to people and damage to automobiles parked nearby. These two species would probably have been better off keeping their distance from one another. By that I mean, better off if the humans kept their distance from the bears. Selfies seem to be the latest phenomena affecting human-wildlife relations. Once again, people are drawing themselves ever closer to potentially dangerous animals for the thrill of a show or spectacle caused by a captivating photo taken within life threatening distance of a bear or bison. This time, people get to “ooh and ahh” over the photo you post on facebook, twitter, and instagram. Your ‘likes’ go through the roof and everyone is happy; except for the unfortunate people and wildlife that are effected in the event of a provoked attack.
It’s easy to identify the potential problems with this selfie taking behavior. For the most part I don’t have to say it again as the results of selfies gone wild are the same as in an article I wrote about protecting your food: Why It’s Important To Protect Your Food. First, you’re risking your life. Second, but more importantly, you’re risking the life of that particular animal. If they attack you, they will be punished by wildlife management teams through relocation or euthanasia. Your carelessness and lack of awareness is the cause, it’s not that animals fault. Not to mention, repeated behaviors can become learned behaviors for wildlife. The more people try to cozy up to large animals, the more comfortable the wildlife will be around people. Which means those animals will in turn keep less distance from people. But animals’ increasing confidence around people does not mean that they will be less likely to attack. In fact, increasing confidence in animals and decreasing distance is a recipe for more
human-wildlife conflict. It is critical that both humans and wildlife are afraid of each other. However, it seems more and more that people have lost their fear. There may be some cultural reasons for that. We have stuffed Teddy Bears that we hug at night in bed. We see cute and friendly bears in Charmin toilet paper commercials and Winnie the Pooh cartoons. In popular culture, we view them as unthreatening, cuddly creatures, and this perception may translate directly to how we behave outside. I would argue, however, that people would be less likely to approach a wolf, because in most folklore, wolves are portrayed as evil and threatening, such as the Big Bad Wolf and Jack London’s White Fang. This may be why the general public is so afraid of wolf reintroduction programs. As for bison, I can’t say what they’re perception is in popular culture, but in the wild they appear slow moving and unconcerned, feeding on grasses. Despite their size and horns, they appear docile. But I digress. Make no mistake about it, any time you approach a wild animal, you are viewed as a threat. Could there be anything more fearless than coming within arms reach of a bison, just to turn your back on it for a selfie? It’s funny how many people are willing to take dangerous selfies with large animals, but those same people would probably never dare step foot in a bull fighting ring. If you want to come close to a dangerous bovine and turn your back to it in complete arrogance, become a matador. Leave it out of wild lands, National Forests and National Parks. (We’ll save the ethical debate about bull fighting for later.)
Allow me to step off my self-awarded pedestal for a moment. I am going to reveal a picture of myself of which I’m not very proud. Maybe this will cause me to lose all of my credibility associated with what I’ve written previously. But I’m showing it to make a point. Below is a picture of me with my back turned to a black bear while I’m making a dumb ass face and putting two thumbs up.
In my defense, I was probably 50 yards away from the animal. A decent distance, but not the 100 yards recommended by most parks. But I sure as hell wasn’t within arms length of the bear, and I have only ever been so by accident. The first point is that WE ALL make mistakes. The second point is that we can all learn from our mistakes. Immediately after having my friend take this photo, I regretted it. I knew it was the wrong thing to do. I haven’t done anything like it since. The National Park Service realized their mistake and closed public viewing of bears at trash dumps during World War II. They took their waste management plan (which is really a form of wildlife management) one step further, and closed all of their trash dumps by 1970. Let’s learn from our behavior and recent unfortunate selfie related events. As for selfies that have been executed without injury or harm, those are bad too. Just because you executed it and survived doesn’t make it right. That’s like saying just because you get away with murder, it’s okay. Even though you don’t get caught, it’s still the wrong decision. You shouldn’t always do something just because you want to do it. Let’s abandon the practice of close up selfies with wild animals. Let’s do this before anyone else, or any more animals, get hurt. It’s simply not worth it. Nature and wildlife are beautiful things, as are public lands and parks. The only way they can remain open safely to visitors is if each person plays their part, acts appropriately and respects the land and its inhabitants. It’s important for you, the visitor, to show some restraint and police yourself. Parks are understaffed and underfunded. It’s a logistical nightmare to for staff and volunteers to constantly have to monitor visitors near wildlife. I’ve seen it first hand. Viewing wildlife is one of life’s greatest joys. It gives us a rush of excitement and inspires a sense of awe and wonder, especially in the case of animals that most people don’t see every day. But wildlife viewing must be done appropriately. It’s not just our lives and the lives of beautiful and innocent animals that are at stake, it is the larger concepts of conservation, preservation, outdoor recreation, and “wilderness.” These are human concepts, and the way we behave fundamentally effects the restrictions we place on them and how we approach them. Otherwise, we may have increasing numbers of parks closing due to selfies, and that’s ridiculous. Period.
However, I try not to offer criticism and point out problems without offering alternatives or solutions. Here are some ideas so that you can still view wildlife but remain safe.
First, the golden rule: keep a safe distance from wildlife always. That means no selfies. Keeping a safe distance is the first and best way to prevent provoking a wild animal. Prevention is always the best solution to a problem. The U.S. National Park Service recommends, in most instances, a minimum 100 yards (a football field) away from bears and wolves. They recommend minimum of 25 yards (two regular yellow school buses) from bison, elk, and all other large animals. As for other smaller animals, use common sense and your best judgement. For example, just don’t try to pick up a snake or pet a raccoon. What are you hoping to accomplish by doing so? Another simple trick is to remember this: if you cause an animal to move or adjust its behavior due to your presence, you’re too close. Here is some bear viewing etiquette as written by the National Park Service: click! However, not all bear encounters are intentional or provoked. They may be by accident, when both parties stumble upon each other previously unaware of one another’s presence. Use these recommendations by the National Park Service in the event of a bear encounter, or learn from National Geographic How to Not Get Attacked by a Bear. Trust these recommendations, I’ve had to use them with black bears and they work. Remember, engaging with a black bear and a grizzly bear can be a bit different. Conflicts with bears are rare, but conflicts with other animals, like bison, elk, moose, or wolves are probably even more so. There seems to be far less literature on the subject. I have no recommendations in the event that you have to engage with anything other than a bear. I have no personal experience. So I’ll just go ahead and say you’re screwed. I’m kidding, but if you always adhere to the golden rule, you should be just fine.
Second, I want to acknowledge that fact that cellular telephones are becoming the primary camera for most people. However, that fact of the matter is, our iPhones and iPads are not sufficient for good wildlife photography. Their lenses are not strong enough, and if we want to use them for photos, they require us to get closer to our subjects. I encourage you to abandon the idea that your smartphone can capture a great photo of a wild animal. Either put your phone down and simply enjoy the experience of seeing an animal and create a memory (consider bringing binoculars), or buy a better camera. There are three types of cameras you can get that will be assuredly much better for your wildlife photos than your iPhone. For someone looking for something similar to smartphone as far as ‘ease of use’ is concerned, go for a point-and-shoot camera. They’re
relatively inexpensive, easy to use, and should be able to give you a decent photo while remaining at a safe distance like the ones recommended above. Then there are mirrorless cameras, which are somewhat comparable to point-and-shoot as far as size and weight, but offer more in terms of lenses, which may enable photos from a farther distance, for example in the event that you see a bear in a far off tree. Last, but best for true photography, would be Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) cameras. They’re the biggest and most expensive, but they offer the most functionality, particularly for wildlife photography. It is important to choose a lens wisely, but here some that are best for wildlife: click (although a standard 18-200mm lense should do the average tourist just fine). A good DSLR/lense set up will do wonders for your photography, and you’ll be able to take extraordinary photos at some pretty lengthy distances, capturing all the beauty you could want while remaining safe. I recommend Canon (yo Canon, can I get an endorsement?).
Lastly, just be generally aware of your surroundings when taking a selfie or photo. There have been more and more instances of selfie related injuries and death, due to simple slips and falls. Many of these have occurred as people have tried to take selfies while standing on stairs, walls, cliffs, and bridges. Try not to be too focused on your your device while setting up your perfect shot. Be conscious of your location, potential hazards, and particularly your footing at all times.
Who could have ever predicted that we’d be issuing warnings against selfies?
I say all of this because almost more important than the photo itself is to live and share the photo with friends and family and to tell the story behind it for years to come. Let’s keep the wildlife safe and our parks open. Remember to #SelfieSafe.
Full disclosure: this post was just an excuse for me to display all of my bad selfies.