I ran into an ethical dilemma while on assignment at the Santa Cruz Sentinel today (and by today I mean when I wrote this, I have a bad habit on making everything a draft because I want to rewrite stuff), and it was a most fowl dilemma indeed.

(Thunder clap!)

Sorry I couldn’t resist.

Anyhow, I was given an assignment for a story on the ducks– and to a lesser extent the geese (which makes me wonder if Santa Cruz is a anti-goose town… but that’s a topic for another blog)– at Schwan Lake in Santa Cruz and the violation of laws that prohibit the feeding of said ducks.

So I arrived and right off the bat I decided that showing someone feeding the ducks would not be fair since it singles out this one person as committing a crime, so I decided to do compose my shots in a manner that would include a human element without actually identifying anyone.

But it turns out I over thought the situation because there was not a single person in sight. Back to the drawing board.

I changed my focus to making a visually appealing image from a nature angle, and I asked myself, “how would National Geographic do it?”

I decided to slowly approach the duck with a wide angle in hopes of having them approach me. I reasoned that these animals had become accustomed to being feed and therefore would come towards any human that treaded lightly in their direction.

I was wrong, they slowly waddled away, I’m convinced one of them gave me the duck equivalent of the middle finger when he turned his back to me, shock his tail feathers and kicked up the dirt behind me in my direction as he eyed me over his avian shoulder. Back to the drawing board.

I switched up lenses and walked around the lake for a while, hoping to compose a compelling picture that conveyed the story in a single shot, but the ducks were startled by my presence and kept swimming… er, floating?… away.

I was stumped, how was I going to get a picture of the ducks for the front page story that I’d be proud to have my name under in print?

I had already taken a few shots by this time as safeties and decided to try something.

I began to toss tiny pebbles and twings in the lake and near me to trick the ducks into thinking I was laying out a buffet. They approached and caught on quick and swam, floated or waddled away, but I snapped a few frames as they came toward me.

I was satisfied and decided to book it to my next assignment.

At the moment all I was thinking of was my deadlines and the stories I still needed to cover, but a few hours later as I sat down to edit my takes a thought that had been nagging me since I foraged the ground for the first pebble at the lake surfaced.

Was scattering the fake food, the bait, the lure if you prefer, ethical? Was it ethical for me to manipulate the behavior of the ducks to get the image I needed?

With people it’s obvious. We would never ask a bride to shove cake in the face of her new husband a second time for the camera, or move a folding chair from the middle to the right third because it helps the composition, or ask a crying toddler to look up after he dropped his ice cream beacuse the green grass makes a better background, but what about with animals?

Do we extend the same ethical limits to animals that we place on humans? Or is their a loophole that excuses animals since they are no more aware of the camera than they are of us?

On the one hand, their behavior is already affected by my presence, on the other hand, tossing fake food is pre-mediated outright consciouses manipulation of reality.

Where do we draw the line?

I’m not sure what the answer is, but in the end I decided to go with the pictures I took before the “fishing” expedition. When it comes to matters like these, I feel I have to be able to answer to myself, and even though the ducks behaved differently since I was around, I see that as something that I can’t help, but actively tossing pebbles (side note: I keep wanting to say rocks, but I get the feeling some people will think by rocks I mean giant boulders aimed at poor innocent ducks… pebbles just has a nicer connotation.) is something I can help.

That said, I still really not sure what the right answer is.

What do you think?