Titled “The Stranglehold,” this award-winning photo by Alison Buttigieg spawned a feel-good but phony Internet meme about a self-sacrificial impala. (Reprinted with permission)

The Myth of the Impala Mama

Finnish photographer Alison Buttigieg loves cats. The Internet loves cats. But these days Buttigieg hates the Internet because it’s lying about one of her cat photos.

It all started Feb. 11. Someone who knows her work as a wildlife photographer recognized a cheetah picture of hers online. That wasn’t necessarily a surprise — Buttigieg published the “remarkable” photo on her blog, Facebook and Instagram last November after it won an international award. But the flood of messages that started pouring in from strangers that day stunned her.

An intellectual property thief had stolen her photo, invented a feel-good back-story for it, and engineered a viral sensation — one that wasn’t exactly flattering to Buttigieg. The tall tale portrayed the three cheetahs in the photo as heartless killers, their impala prey as a self-sacrificial mother and Buttigieg as a fragile soul who sank into depression after documenting a feline feast.

“In the beginning I thought it was absolutely hilarious, even the trolling,” she told me in an email interview six days after the hoax spread. “But then it was suddenly really overwhelming when I realized there wasn’t much I could do.”

A passion for wild animals and wild places

Buttigieg is an information technology consultant whose passion for animals and for wild places inspired a foray into photography. She has carried a camera on wildlife journeys around the world for 13 years and started taking the photographic aspect of her observations more seriously about four years ago.

One of many posts that spread the lie about an impala mother sacrificing herself to cheetahs so her young could escape. (Image: Facebook)

“I see my photos as a means to spread awareness about wildlife and the need to protect them and their habitat,” she said.

Buttigieg has shot pictures on three continents — Africa, Asia and South America. Her favorite places include Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in Botswana and South Africa, and the Massai Mara Game Reserve in Kenya. In September 2013, she was near the latter location, at the Olare Motorogi Conservancy, when she saw a family of cheetahs trap a lone impala.

Cats of all kinds fascinate Buttigieg because of their beauty and expressive faces. Cheetahs stand out in the felidae species for their speed, quirks and sounds. The guides at the conservancy knew she loved cheetahs, and a mother and two adolescents were near the camp during her visit.

This is how the scene unfolded as soon as her party spotted the family:

The mother cheetah spotted the impala from a distance and practically walked straight up to it. The impala didn’t even try to run away, and it did not put up a fight. Impalas are social creatures, and this one was completely alone, so I suspect it was already sick or somewhat injured.
The mother cheetah held the poor impala by the neck to let her youngsters practice their hunting skills. The impala went into shock and stood motionless like a statue while the young cheetahs proceeded to play with it. They seemed to be quite clueless as to what their mother wanted them to do. After a few minutes the mother cheetah put the impala out of its misery, and all the family enjoyed a good meal.
This kind of training exercise is actually quite common, although usually the mother teaches the youngsters by bringing live antelope fawns for them, not adults. It is crucial for the young cats to hone their skills.
Wildlife photographer Alison Buttigieg (Reprinted with permission)

Buttigieg wrote about the experience in two “Behind the Shot” blog posts over the next year. The first piece included her thoughts about watching the kill. Although she said “it was not easy to watch” and sympathized with the prey, she added that it was a “privilege” to see nature take its course. She echoed those sentiments a few months later while defending her decision to document a cruel death without intervening on the impala’s behalf.

“We need to be nudged to remember about the circle of life,” Buttigieg wrote. “This photo is raw nature, depicting the moment the impala gave up its fight for life. But it’s also the moment when the three cheetahs were assured of another meal to live another day. A bittersweet moment I will never forget.”

The Internet’s stranglehold on the truth

Neither of those reflections triggered a meme about mothers, with the impala serving as their saintly symbol. That didn’t happen until three months after Buttigieg touted a third photo from that day. She titled it “The Stranglehold” — and now the Internet has a stranglehold on her reputation.

“I really started to panic when the story found its way on LinkedIn and I was tagged in it,” Buttigieg said. “It was pretty embarrassing when I thought about colleagues reading about this (and yes, they did) — and [that it] could potentially undermine my future prospects.”

She has seen evidence of the fake news in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Bollywood star Shahid Kapoor fueled the Internet fact-shredder when he shared the false story on Facebook.

“No man can match up to what a mother does,” he gushed foolishly. “Women are superior to men in so many ways. Let’s learn to appreciate them. And learn to show them love. Every day.” More than 18,000 people shared his post, which also generated more than 76,000 reactions and nearly 700 comments.

Buttigieg called out Kapoor on Twitter, but so far he has ignored her. The story is much the same elsewhere online.

I found the myth of the impala mama via a Facebook friend who shared a post by the page I Love Africa. Thankfully, my conscientious friend also pointed me to the real story, and the full series of cheetah/impala photos, on Buttigieg’s website. I added that link in the comments of the I Love Africa post.

Buttigieg added a few sarcastic words of her own: “You would think that a page called ‘I Love Africa’ would know the difference between a deer and an impala. And that this story is completely fake from start to finish. BTW, this is my photo and you are using it without permission.”

The managers of the page have yet to correct the record.

A world full of attention hogs and gullible people

Buttigieg lamented that an important conservation message is being muddled by the misinformation surrounding her photo. “The real story here is that there are only 7,100 cheetahs left in the wild,” she said. “Why isn’t that going viral?”

That’s one reason she has been all over the Internet the past week, trying both to rebut the lies and to reclaim creative control of her image. “What a vile world we live in, full of stupid gullible people spreading fake news like crazy,” she said on Facebook. And this on Instagram: “The real story is that news media are now also stealing my story and making money off it.”

Attention is another motivating factor. Some people see a cool photo or video as an opportunity to test their creative writing skills. They steal the picture and make stuff up to see how many likes they can get. Wildlife images are particularly appealing.

This image became popular two years after a travel author took it. The inspiring headline assumed a happy ending to the story. (Image: Reddit)

It happened to travel author Bryan Snyder of Off the Map Adventures last year. A Reddit user discovered his two-year-old photo of a king snake eating an alligator lizard, copied it and slapped an inspiring headline on it: “Be as determined as this lizard. (He later escaped.)

That may be what happened, but Snyder couldn’t say so with confidence when he claimed authorship of the photo. “It was in the process of withdrawing … but it was a long process, and I had a hike I really wanted to do before it got too hot in the day. So I left the two to their business and drove off to the trail head. However, it sure looked like the lizard’s determination had won out!”

A few months before that incident, I had fun unearthing the story behind a cougar photo that people from my home state of West Virginia were sharing. Some guy stole the photo off Facebook and invented a story about the cougar attacking his dog. There are no cougars in the Mountain State — the photo was taken in Oregon — but the truth isn’t an obstacle when you’re trolling for likes.

Even though the real story behind Buttigieg’s cheetah/impala photo is compelling, the crooks who took it also chose fiction over fact to drive traffic to it. “Social media is like a status symbol nowadays,” she said. “Some people seem to think their worth is judged by how many likes they get on their page and posts. A shortcut to get a lot of likes seems to be posting overdramatic sob stories that tug at people’s heartstrings.”

The problem is that it’s tough to set the record straight once a sob story gains traction. Buttigieg is particularly aggravated with Facebook.

She said the process for reporting fake news on the network is so fruitless that her only recourse was filing claims of copyright infringement. But that was cumbersome, too, and the lie continued to spread for hours while copyright cops reviewed each claim. Facebook eventually quit responding to her claims altogether.

“I felt completely powerless to push back,” Buttigieg said.

But she’s not yet ready to quit her quest to inject a dose of truth into the Internet hoax machine. “It seems being really stubborn about it is slowly getting the real story out. I don’t give up that easily.”