Photographing Wildlife Safely

An alligator lays on an embankment.
Is it resting or hunting?

If you’re reading this, you probably take a lot of photos. And, odds are, you’ll be taking many more. So there will always be another great shot to replace one missed, provided the photographer puts safety first.

Safety begins when one pauses for the shot and glances down. Is she standing next to a venomous snake? (I’ve done that through oversight.) Is she standing on an anthill? (Itchy blisters scolded for weeks.) Will a misstep mean tenacious prickly-pears gripping the shoes with two-inch spikes? (I assisted a gentleman who’d tromped on a cactus at the trail’s edge.)

How does the photographer feel when he first spots a large animal, such as a buffalo, bear, coyote, or boar. Excitement! He grabs for his camera! He then, hopefully, takes a breath and monitors his own behavior. Is there a sense of respect? One who loves nature has no desire to crowd an animal; backs off if the subject changes its behavior due to an encroaching human. Is there fear? If so, trust the intuition. The body is issuing a word of caution. Instead of moving toward the subject, it’s given wide berth and a zoom lens is put into play.

What if the subject is out of range? Most of the world is out of range. Accept that one cannot see or photograph everything. And if we could, the challenge (and enjoyment) of photography would be soon disappear. There will always be another great shot.

Florida has several dangerous animals, including six species of venomous snakes, several species of venomous spiders, male deer during mating season; female deer with offspring; coyotes, black bears, occasionally panthers, and alligators. When I go hiking, the most commonly encountered danger is the alligator.

Florida is covered with ponds, rivers, lakes, and marshes. And wherever there is standing water with vegetative cover, there is likely an alligator in residence. Walking close to water or marsh grasses is always dangerous, since the animals stalk and strike prey along the bank. Even a very large gator can hide itself in vegetation or minimally murky water.

An alligator watches from the reeds.

Sitting on the ground of an embankment is also dangerous, since an alligator may be observing the opportunity – waiting for the person’s attention to stray. I recently saw a young woman reading on the bank, seemingly oblivious to the world around her.

And when laying on an embankment, the human profile resembles that of another alligator. I recently saw a photographer stretched long, with a huge camera lens resting on his chest. Might a resident male (or nesting female) see the profile as a territorial threat?

When a photographer crouches near the water to photograph wading birds, she’s now the size of a large dog – favorite prey! I learned this lesson firsthand when a very large gator crept up behind me and prepared to spring from the water. I suddenly noticed it and jumped up. The gator submerged, becoming invisible in a foot of muddy pond water. (A few weeks later, this gator and another behemoth were removed from this particular park.)

Of course, whenever I go hiking, I take my camera. I also harness a pair of 12 x 42 binoculars to my body, which allows me to quickly see wildlife in detail or monitor it from great distances. During this week’s hike, the binoculars proved particularly helpful.

It’s February, and I was visiting Sweetwater Wetlands in Gainesville, Florida. Here the temperatures are warming, and the alligators are feeding and preparing to define and defend territories. As I stood alone on the trail, I noticed one large gator laying near the water.

I felt no fear, since I was using my zoom lens and was a safe distance away. However, to continue on the trail, I’d have to pass within 25-30 feet of its snout. Signs in the park recommend staying at least 20 feet away, so I’d be officially in the “safe” zone, but something about this particular animal made me uncomfortable. (First rule, trust the vibe.)

I snapped a quick shot, and then enlarged the eye on my camera screen. Not sleeping. In fact it appeared to be watching me. To verify, I lifted the binoculars for a better look. The animal was observing my behavior.

A large gator positions itself to watch me on the trail.

It became more alert and no longer feigned disinterest. It lifted itself from the ground, and positioned itself so that it now laid parallel to the path. Since alligators see much more clearly to the sides of their heads, I assumed that it was preparing to watch as I passed.

My internal alarms were signaling. I remembered a YouTube video I’d seen. An alligator had positioned itself similarly near a sidewalk. Laid quietly as a man and his small dog passed, and then, when their backs were turned, it ran for the dog.

I saw a woman some distance ahead. Thought I would wait on the trail until we could pass together. The combined movement in opposing directions would make us look larger and more confusing. But the woman didn’t approach. Instead she stopped to take photos.

I thought back to my zookeeper training. With very large animals or very tall animals, increased size or height can deflect an attack. How could I make myself look bigger?

Then I realized I had a new tool tied to my belt – an umbrella hat that had failed due to the day’s winds. It took me some moments to untie the knots I’d made. The alligator watched as I fumbled, excitement in its eyes.

I’ve seen gators’ eyes come alive for two reasons. One is when targeting a meal. The other is when defending territory. Neither made me more comfortable.

I slowly unfolded the umbrella, and then realized that the outward surface was silver. I might look like another alligator, which could provoke the animal into becoming aggressive. That wouldn’t work.

But the underside of the umbrella was deep blue. I’d face this toward the gator. Then I’d walk as far from it as I could with the blue surface between us. This would effectively cause me to disappear and, at the same time, create a very large silhouette.

I took a few steps and the animal rose, quickly turned, and sprang from the embankment into the water. A loud splash! It had worked! I was able to pass safely.

So do I recommend using umbrellas to scare alligators? No. Scaring animals for fun is cruel. And If everyone did this, the animals would simply become accustomed to the device and it would become ineffective.

Instead I recommend the following:

  • Monitor one’s feelings; does the situation feel dangerous? All large, wild animals are unpredictable. Many may run, but others may charge. They’re as individual as people.
  • Put yourself in the animal’s paws or hooves. Might the photographer be a threat? A challenger? A meal?
  • Think about previous experiences and information you’ve encountered. What do you already know about this animal and its behavior?
  • Wear binoculars, so that monitoring an animal’s behavior and level of excitement is easier.
  • Photograph dangerous animals from a distance. Use your zoom, and accept that some subjects will be out of range. There will always be another great shot.
Gator at Sweetwater Wetlands Park, Gainesville, FL

Published by cafsamsel

Carol Fullerton-Samsel is a nearly-native Floridian who lives with her husband of 25 years and three rescue animals. She has a passion for day-hiking and nature, and also enjoys writing. Be sure to visit the TenPaths YouTube channel, which is still in its infancy.

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