Ah, the art of the selfie. There are angles, lighting and settings to consider, and of course visible proof that you're having an epic, share-worthy experience. Sometimes, in the interest of showing what amazing things we're doing, we decide to add a second character, and sometimes that second character is a wild animal.
Here is where selfies become problematic. Folks try to get way too close to wildlife for a photo op, and it's happening with increased frequency despite the warnings of everyone from concerned mothers to park officials. In fact, Waterton Canyon, a park in Denver, had to temporarily shut down because people wouldn't stop trying to take selfies with bears — as in wild bears like wild mama bears with little bear cubs.
In August 2015, when the park closed its doors until bear activity subsided, Denver Water's Travis Thompson wrote,
"As with the current bear situation, there are times when it’s necessary to keep the public out of nature’s way ... Hopefully, we’ll reopen the canyon soon. But there will come a time when we’ll have to close it again. So when we do, know that it’s done to maintain a safe environment for the recreational users and workers who share the canyon. Oh, and the next time you see a bear in the woods, or even your front yard, please put down the selfie stick."
Most people are bright enough to not risk their own life or an animal's life to get a selfie, but unfortunately there are many people who don't think things through. The growth of this trend has inspired some promising efforts to discourage it, however, such as a new warning message that Instagram users will see when they search or click certain hashtags related to animal selfies, like #slothselfie or #tigerselfie.
"You are searching for a hashtag that may be associated with posts that encourage harmful behavior to animals or the environment," the message explains, as reported by National Geographic. Users will then be invited to visit a page with information about wildlife exploitation.
This is an important step, but much wider awareness will be needed to really solve this problem. So, in hopes of helping out, we've come up with five questions everyone with a selfie stick should ask themselves before going in for a portrait.
These questions should be asked whether you're taking a selfie or posing for a photo anywhere near an animal. But considering selfies tend to be a determining factor in winning a Darwin Award, we're angling this for the selfie crowd.
Is the animal I want to get a selfie with a wild animal?
If the answer is yes, we recommend skipping the photo. Wild animals are unpredictable. Getting close enough to a wild animal so that it can be clearly seen in that wide-angle lens you're toting means getting too close. And there's another problem: You generally have to turn your back on the animal in order to get the selfie. Just like you don't turn your back on the unpredictable ocean, you don't turn your back on an unpredictable animal.
"It is a poor choice from our perspective, A) to get that close to wildlife and B) to turn your back, particularly on bears," Matt Robbins, a spokesman for Colorado Parks and Wildlife told the Denver Channel when discussing Waterton Canyon, but it's true for any kind of animal, from that habituated raccoon in the park to that deer in your front yard.
Also, if the answer is no, and you want a selfie with a domestic animal, then you should still consider the following questions anyway. From dogs and cats to cows and donkeys, people still often end up making the wrong decision when it comes for leaning in close for a photo op.
If you're still determined to getting a selfie with a wild animal, ask yourself the following questions before making a move.
Is there any potential scenario in which I might end up in the emergency room by taking this selfie?
If the answer is yes, we recommend skipping the selfie. Even if the animal seems calm and friendly, if it has teeth, claws, hooves, horns, antlers, spines, stingers, fangs or any other defense mechanism, then there is indeed a potential scenario in which you could end up in the emergency room.
An example of this poor thinking happens frequently in Yellowstone. The park's famous bison are just big-shouldered cows, right? Wrong. Bison, while they look all chill grazing in a meadow, are wild animals and thus unpredictable. Despite constant warnings, tourists often get too close. In 2015, a 16-year-old tourist was tossed by a bison as she tried to take a selfie, and a few weeks later a 62-year-old man was tossed after coming within a few feet of a bison for photos.
If the animal has potential to do you any damage at all, a selfie isn't worth the risk. And remember, if an animal harms you, even if it's your fault, it could end up being the one that suffers the consequences. An animal that attacks a human, especially predators like bears, could end up being euthanized.
If you're convinced the animal can't harm you, ask yourself the next question.
Is there any potential way this selfie might injure the animal?
If the answer is yes, skip the selfie. Just because a selfie might be harmless for you doesn't necessarily mean that selfie is harmless for the animal.
There's been a spurt of news items recently about people harming and even killing animals while trying to take pictures with them. Tourists mobbed a baby dolphin of a rare species just to take selfies, then it was left on the beach for dead. A woman recently made the news for dragging a swan from a lake to get a selfie with it, then leaving it to die on the shore. These are examples of obvious cruelty in the name of a photo, but sometimes people don't realize the harm they're causing.
Sea turtles coming up on the beach are a big draw for tourists to take photos. Yet that kind of attention, including the flash of a camera, is extremely harmful to the turtles, which come ashore to get vital rest or to nest. Driving them away from the beach can potentially make them more vulnerable to predators, or reduce their chance of nesting success. It is a troubling trend, and one that recently made the news as tourists crowded a Costa Rican beach as sea turtles arrived, disrupting the nesting of this species that is vulnerable to extinction.
Consider this question for the smaller, more fragile creatures such as butterflies and other bugs as well. Handling them can cause serious damage or death, and even the littlest critters deserve the respect of selfie-free space.
Harm can be caused even without touching the animal. Many people are able to take a selfie with wild animals because the animals have been fed by tourists and are habituated.
But just because they don't run away doesn't mean they're tame. Sometimes being fed actually can lead to a loss of fear toward humans and aggressive behavior. This is true even for animals that seem cuddly, cute and safe, including raccoons, deer and elk, which can do plenty of damage to a person if they decide they don't appreciate the attention.
Being fed by tourists hoping to get close for photos leads to a host of potential problems for the wildlife including poor nutrition, the spread of disease, and becoming so dependent on humans for food that the animal loses the ability to forage for itself.
Now, you've asked yourself these questions and are certain that the animal is not going to harm you and that you aren't directly harming the animal during the process of taking a selfie. There's still one more question to ask before you click the shutter.
Does the way in which I'm getting this selfie with a wild animal seem at all suspicious?
If it's too good to be true, it probably is. And that goes with facilities that allow people to get close to wild animals for photo ops.
For example, if you've paid to be in an enclosed area with lion or tiger cubs and you're being encouraged to pet and cuddle them, or even just pose with them, you may want to think twice about the ethics of this location. There are a good number of facilities that use these cubs to make a profit through tourism while the cubs are young, and as soon as they're too big, they are sold into canned hunting or killed and sold for parts. Often during their lives they're treated cruelly by those raising them, and those paying to pose with them. The famous Tiger Temple is getting heat for its poor treatment of the tigers, and the documentary "Blood Lions" is bringing attention to cub petting and its ties to canned lion hunting.
If you've paid to swim with dolphins, consider how the dolphins are affected, whether they are wild or captive. Tour companies that chase down dolphin pods so tourists can swim with them are actually causing the dolphins to lose much-needed rest. Captive dolphins used for "swim with the dolphins" (SWTD) programs often end up in enclosures through cruel means.
"Most SWTD programs outside the U.S. capture their dolphins from the wild. Not only is this practice extremely traumatic for wild dolphins, often resulting in a life-threatening condition known as capture stress or capture myopathy, it can also have a negative impact on the pods from which the dolphins are taken," writes Healthy Pets.
If there is a situation in which you're able to "safely" pose with a wild animal, and there isn't a recognized scientist, biologist, ranger or other animal expert near by (and "trainers" don't count), then you may be contributing to animal abuse. A photo isn't worth this.
One last bonus question to ask yourself before you decide to stop experiencing life and start posing for it:
Could this selfie cause me legal trouble?
Are you doing this because it's really important to you in some way, or because you think you have a chance to be Internet famous for a day like the folks with the quokka selfies? And if you're doing it because you want to show off to friends, then is there a chance you're pushing some legal limits just to get the shot?
There have been quite a few people who have landed in court after their selfie photos and online videos worked as proof of wildlife harassment, animal cruelty, or breaking laws protecting wildlife and endangered species. Even if you won't get in legal trouble, you could potentially face a huge public backlash, like the guy who dragged a shark from the water just to pose for a photo.
If you have any question about whether or not you should be doing what you're doing with an animal, don't do it. And if you aren't stopping to think about the potential consequences of a photo op, please, for the love of all living things, think it through.
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was originally published in March 2016.