‘Back off, human! It’s MY family home now.’

It’s a jungle out there: The raccoon used the car as a home for her babies, safe from prowling coyotes.

Do we love animals more than humans? The winning entries for the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition have a special power to warm our hearts, and make us gasp with amazement.

Through a hole in an old Ford’s smashed windscreen, a raccoon pokes her fuzzy grey head. The glass looks like an Elizabethan ruff around the small face that stares straight into the camera.

This charming image has been shortlisted for the Wildlife Photographer of the Year (WPY) competition, which awards the most heart-warming and hair-raising snapshots of Earth’s nine million animal species.

You can enjoy the rest of the winning images in our top Become An Expert link. They include:

A parasitic “zombie fungus” bursting through the body of a beetle. Having overtaken its host, the fungus is ready to blow its spores into the wild to claim new victims.

Set against the dark depths of the Red Sea, a school of fish swirls in an hypnotic dance, preparing to choose their mates.

A cheetah, overrun by a pack of wild dogs, puts up a fierce stand. His teeth are bared. His dilated eyes glint with adrenaline. This is nature red in tooth and claw.

Why do these images have such power to pull us in — often more so than portraits of our own species?

According to Lewis Blackwell (author of The Life and Love of Cats and The Life and Love of Dogs), wildlife photography lets us involve ourselves in the stories of creatures that ordinarily feel so distant.

“A great photograph is one of the most immediate, emotionally connecting ways of getting people to think about a subject,” he says.

For US journalist Michael Nichols, the answer is more simple. “The bottom line is humans like wildlife.”

And, surely, he’s on to something. Our fascination with animals is rooted in our infancy and early childhood. Animals, both wild and domestic, feature in countless children’s stories, from Aesop’s fables to Charlotte’s Web. From our first gurgles, we are told that the cow goes “moo” and the duck goes “quack”. Or, as the oldest-known English children’s book explains: “the duck quacketh” and “the bear grumbleth”.

We grow up learning to think of animals as our friends. In fact, two studies with hundreds of participants found that we find it easier to empathise with dogs in distress than with fellow humans.

And, of course, animals are the stuff of our entertainment. There are at least 2.5 billion cat videos on the internet, which have been watched more than 25 billion times.

Do we love animals more than humans?

Hold your horses!

We love animals so much because we yearn for their simplicity. We wish we could interact with the world on pure instinct — like they do — without awkwardness and self-doubt. Their lack of self-awareness gives them an innocence that means our love for them can be pure and uncomplicated.

But can we really love animals? We are amused and entertained by them. We are fond of them. But real love is more profound and challenging, like your relationships with your family and friends. It is hard work and it is life’s biggest reward. Love must be exchanged on equal terms: it can’t simply be showered on fluffy creatures that look up to us as strange, towering aliens.

You Decide

  1. What makes a good photograph?
  2. Do we love animals more than humans?

Activities

  1. Take your own photograph of nature or an animal. Does it tell a story?
  2. Research a famous photographer. Write a paragraph about them and explain what made their work unique.

Some People Say...

“An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language.”

Martin Buber (1878-1965), Austrian philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The WPY competition has announced its categories winners. From these, an overall winner will be chosen and announced on 15 October, with the pictures then displayed at the National History Museum in London, three days later. A panel of international experts have selected the shortlist from over 55,000 entries.
What do we not know?
Which image will win. Last year, Dutch photographer Marsel van Oosten won with his image “The Golden Couple”, which showed two striking monkeys. In 2017, first prize went to photojournalist Brent Stirton’s harrowing portrait of a rhino which had its horn stolen by poachers. In this way, the award can raise awareness about threats to the natural world.

Word Watch

Parasitic
A life form that needs to live on a host to survive.
Red in tooth and claw
A quote from the poem In Memoriam by Alfred Lord Tennyson. The phrase means using cruel tactics in battle or competition.
Aesop’s fables
Aesop was a slave and storyteller thought to have lived in Greece, between 620 and 564 BCE. His stories, such as The Hare and the Tortoise, use animals to teach moral lessons to children.
Charlotte’s Web
A novel by E. B. White, about a pig who befriends a spider.
Oldest
The book, entitled Orbis Sensualium Pictus, was originally published in Latin and German, in Nuremberg in 1658, and was quickly translated into English by Charles Hoole.
At least
These figures are from 2015. The number is probably greater now.

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