Wednesday, October 31, 2012

This Snow Leopard Wants to Steal Your Wallet

Plush Toys, Marketing Ploys, and Background Noise

It's catalog time: in my house, since I get not only my own junk mail but mail addressed to my late parents, the Christmas catalogs pile up daily. On a bad day, I might get six or ten catalogs. Hard to hear yourself think, over the blizzard of visual static coming in with all that mail.

Today's catalog from the top of the stack comes from WWF, World Wildlife Fund, a conservation group which does, so far as I know, good work. Save the pandas, save the tigers --- that's WWF.

Each year they need a new animal to feature: maybe a koala, maybe a baby gorilla --- something K & K (cute and cuddly). This year's "panda" is a snow leopard. The nature organizations never seem to be interested in trying to save ugly animals, really really tiny animals ("save the endangered polio virus!" --- I think not), or animals that only live in the dark.

I'm all for snow leopards, of course. One of my good friends has just seen one this week I hope: he's on an expedition in the Himalaya right now, and I await his email from the airport, once he's on his way home, to say yes or no if they saw any in the wild.

My problem is that this catalog lies. The group is about wild animals (emphasis added), which is to say, it's not about zoos or captive breeding efforts, not directly anyway, but about habitat enhancement so wild animals stay wild. Their name is not "World (Tame) Wildlife Fund." Yet this photo on the cover almost certainly is a tame snow leopard, in a game park. Why do I say that? The fluffy, immaculate fur, the wispy flakes of snow, the kind yet concerned look on the animal's face, and the tack-sharp focus on its eyes, as the body fades away in a very shallow depth of field...these are all the things that make a perfect shot a perfect shot.

In a wildlife photo course, this is an A+.

Well it is, other than the optional view that in an ethics class, it's an F. All those tigers romping in the snow, in the calendars for sale at the AV Mall? Captive critters, shot in enclosures. Just the reality of reality. You can't get a shot like that any other way. There are very few tigers in places where it snows, and those that are there are so rarely seen that most photographs show animals being tracked from helicopters, woozily dozing under the effects of a tranquilizer dart, dead after having been poached, or auto-captured passing by a camera bolted to a tree. Head-on, perfectly focused, perfectly lit shots just don't happen, not of snow leopards or tigers in the snow, anyway.

But I could be wrong. Never want to be too hasty, especially in accusing somebody of cheating. So I looked in the credits.

The gift catalog doesn't provide credits, but if you check in the back in very small print it says you can go to a particular website and find out. It lists an address.

Google search for their provided address: nothing.

Go to the WWF site itself, nothing.

The catalog lies: they do NOT provide captions, photo credits, or sources. There's no site matching that description or address. (If I were the stock photographer who had supplied this shot to them, I would be annoyed. And in fact, WWF may be violating its licensing contracts with their source photographers. Normally a sale includes specifications on what credit or byline needs to appear. Even the AV Press captions and credits all of its photos!)

Wild shots of true and real snow leopards do exist, of course. I can't say for sure this is a tame animal performing inside a game farm. I can though say it's very suspicious. Even I can go to a zoo and get a good picture, as this shot shows, from Santa Barbara.

There are some technical flaws here, most obviously the blown-out highlights, but still, we all know what it is, right? Hmm, maybe if I photoshopped in a bit of snow, maybe a few prancing fairy elves or a Russian snow panda, maybe I could get my photo delivered to the doorsteps of America, too.

Other pages in the current WWF catalog were taken in nature. Well, kinda sorta.

Here's the spread from pages 4 and 5.

The yearling polar bear on the left almost 99.99 % certainly was photographed in Svalbard, in the Arctic region of Norway.

Here's my shot of a wild cub, probably taken in the same group of rocks.

And not only was this polar bear picture of mine and the one in the catalog each probably taken at the same place, they may even have been taken from the same ship, the attractive and rather famous Noorderlicht.

Looks like a postcard or a brochure, but this is my shot, taken on a lucky day of perfect light.

This is a ship with an ice-breaker hull that each summer does wildlife cruises around the Arctic. Before we were stopped by pack ice, the year I was on board, we got within 600 miles of the North Pole. Probably more published polar bear pictures were taken from its decks than from any other ice floe, helicopter, or National Geographic-sponsored Zodiac on the planet.

What do we make of a shot like this from the WWF catalog? Are we trying to save nature or just getting juiced up for a run to Toys R Us?

The caption says, "Give $50 or more and receive a plush version of your symbolically adopted animal." I get a lot of art museum gift catalogs and wish they had this --- a stuffed Vincent van Gogh, or maybe a late-in-life Picasso, wearing a beret and a striped sailor shirt and about to paint a nude woman, but drawfed down to be pudgy and cuddly-sized, and not at all chain smoking and irritable.

It's not that little stuffed toy animals are not cute: of course they are. So are kittens, too. My wife has a new cat, a demon from hell named Kinsey. As a kitten, Kinsey was cute as a freakin button, I gotta admit. Here she is really small, and then in the dog's food bowl when a bit bigger, and now nearly grown.

Cute kittens work, and so the nature catalogs are going to feature them (if not kittens, then baby unicorns or doe-eyed seal pups or ultra-well-groomed koalas --- whatever it takes). Hard to believe, looking at this three-image sequence, that this is the same cat that can pull extension cords out of the wall or bite all the way through the covers of hardback, first edition books.

In contrast, here's the shot you will NOT see in the wildlife organization Christmas mail.

Yes, not asleep, but dead. As you can perhaps see, it's below the high tide line, and adjacent to this deceased polar bear was a very sturdy tripod with a camera on it. I assume it was set to take a sequence of shots as the tide came in and slowly covered the bear with water. What a great concept, and, potentially, a sober way to end a nature program or a wildlife art show. If anybody has ever seen a published version of that shot, do please drop a comment on this blog.

This shot more than anything else is reality, grim and unadulterated. We used to have a better capacity for reality, and in religious art in Europe in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, people would have themselves painted with skulls or other emblems of mortality visible on the background. (That will be a provocative visual survey, so expect a blog on it another time.)

And now? Now we open the mail, see the panda, write the check. That's okay and all, but what about a chance to provide education? This mailing, as I said earlier, went out to tens of thousands of households. It's a presidential campaign season besides being the run-up to the holidays. We are lied to daily, hourly. Doesn't the American public deserve to see a real snow leopard at least, and not one that eats Purina feline chow and lives in somebody's (very large) back yard?

Reducing nature just to postcards and plush toys diminishes the world for all of us.

AVC's blog is curated by Charles Hood, Language Arts, and does not represent the views of the Board of Trustees on cute animals, bright red sailing ships, or the ethics of keeping animals in zoos in India, as seen in the last shot, above. He can be reached by email at


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  2. It is sad that wildlife is so scares that an idealized image of WWF no longer exists for the technically savvy, yet faced with such an impossible task as saving wildlife, WWF does the best it can to inspire others to join its mission. Non-for-profit marketing is a tricky thing to do. Maybe you are not the ideal target audience for the symbolic adoption campaign. What would you do to convince people to donate to a good, albeit depressing cause?