It could have been a heartwarming story but it quickly turned into tragedy. Earlier this week, numerous media outlets reported that a moose swam across Lake Champlain, making it all the way from New York to Vermont. But once the animal reached the shore to rest, he was surrounded by a crowd of people with cameras, perhaps eager to get their “moose selfies.” Frightened by the noise and the crowds, the moose turned back, reentered the water, and ultimately drowned of exhaustion.
This death could have possibly been avoided had the people on shore backed up a little and given the moose room to recover. A biologist has since suggested that brainworm parasites could have caused the moose to drown, but even if that were the case, the crowding no doubt exacerbated the situation. And this sort of tragic story is becoming only too familiar.
Last year, a dolphin calf died in Spain, clearly stressed out and frightened, after being passed around by hundreds of people for selfies. Earlier this year, a man in India was mauled to death by a bear after he reportedly tried to take a selfie with the animal. In Yellowstone National Park, people regularly get too close to bison and bears to get photos.
Encountering a beautiful animal in the wild can be exhilarating, and frequently our first instinct is to get closer to the animal to seize this memorable moment for posterity. Even if the animal appears agitated and afraid, we ask ourselves, what’s one quick photo?
But as these incidents show, getting up close to wildlife can have unintended and dangerous consequences. Crowding a wild animal who is trying to get away can lead to panic and result in the animal causing harm to humans, self-injury, or its ultimate demise.
Harbor seals living at the Children’s Pool Beach in La Jolla, California, have been harassed for years by individuals wanting to take selfies with these animals. This is against federal law, but people try it anyway. The beach is closed to the public for several months during the pupping season to protect the mothers and pups resting in the rookery, as a constant onslaught of people disturbs the seals and can separate moms from pups. Moreover, a bite delivered from a defensive seal’s sharp teeth is a public safety issue.
Wild animals are fascinating but when we are lucky enough to encounter them, we need to respect their limits, back up and give them space. We also need to pay attention to signs of potential agitation, provocation and actions that could signal the animal is feeling harassed.
It is understandable that people want to memorialize an incredible moment with wildlife. Such experiences and encounters are often the reason people commit to the protection of these amazing animals in the first place. How sad and terrible then when such interactions produce poor outcomes for the animals involved.
Photographing an animal can be done safely and respectfully, from a distance, that way you will have images that last you forever, reminding you how lucky you were to be in that moment.