Seeing the world through an animal’s eyes

Nosy pose: Mogens Trolle’s photo of a proboscis monkey won the WPY animal portrait prize. © Mogens Trolle

Are animals the best teachers? Two annual photography awards, and an extraordinary new documentary, highlight how much we can learn from other creatures about the workings of our planet.

A Siberian tiger hugs a tree deep in the forest to leave her scent and establish her territory. A jumping spider looking like a Hollywood star in a fur coat and dark glasses prepares to make its next leap. A frog hangs from a twig as it stops to feed, its pose uncannily suggestive of a drunken man propping up a bar.

These amazing images were among the finalists for two prestigious prizes awarded on Tuesday. The tiger photograph won Sergey Gorshkov the Wildlife Photographer of the Year (WPY) award; Jaime Culebras’s frog was a runner-up, while Andrei Nica’s spider was shortlisted for the Small World Photomicrography Competition.

The WPY grand prize for junior photographers went to Finnish teenager Liina Heikkinen for a dramatic shot of a fox eating a goose. The fox had cleverly hidden in the crevice of a rock so that it could keep its meal to itself.

There is an equally unforgettable image at the start of a new documentary called My Octopus Teacher. Lying on the seabed off the South African coast is something that appears to be a small rock covered in shells. But then the rock moves – and we realise that it is actually an octopus. It has collected the shells with its suckers and wrapped them around itself as a disguise to fool its predators.

The film is about the unlikely friendship that photographer Craig Foster forged with this ingenious creature, and how it helped put his life back on track.

Worn out by years of intense work, Foster was suffering from depression that left him unable to have a proper relationship with his young son Tom. But he remembered the joy he had found in playing in rock pools as a child, and decided to try and cure himself by exploring the waters around his home in South Africa’s Western Cape.

It was here, in an underwater kelp forest, that he spotted the female octopus and located her home underneath a rock. From then on, he dived down to visit it every day. Gradually, the creature came to trust him. In one of the film’s most magical scenes, Foster reaches out his hand towards her – and she responds by touching it with one of her tentacles.

One day Foster frightens the octopus off by accidentally dropping part of his camera equipment. Desperate to find her again, he uses tracking skills, learnt from the bushmen he had photographed in the Kalahari Desert, to work out her movements as she hunts for food. By the time he locates her and re-establishes trust, he feels he is thinking like an octopus.

Above all, he is struck by her intelligence. In a terrifying sequence, she is hunted by a pyjama shark but escapes by making lightning-fast decisions about how to hide and camouflage herself.

The film is made especially poignant by Foster’s knowledge that his friend has a lifespan of just one year. But by the end of it, she has given him a new sense of nature’s wonders, and shown him how to reconnect with his son – by introducing him to her world, and teaching him to treat its inhabitants with respect.

Are animals the best teachers?

Animal animus

Some say, yes. Animals show us how to focus on the most important things in life: looking after ourselves and our families, and also making friends and relaxing – one scene in the film shows the octopus playing with a shoal of fish. They have an instinctive understanding of the natural world that humans have largely lost, and that we need to regain if the planet is to be saved.

Others argue that our lives are fundamentally different from other creatures because we have created a super-sophisticated technological society, and have higher ambitions. We cannot turn the clock back. Education needs to be geared to subjects, such as computer science, that will help us thrive in the modern world, and those that allow us to express ourselves through art and literature.

You Decide

  1. Which is the most intelligent creature you know of?
  2. In one scene from the film, Craig Foster agonises over whether to help the octopus escape from a shark. Do humans have a right to interfere in the lives of wild creatures?

Activities

  1. Look at the shortlisted pictures for the two photography awards, and the trailer for My Octopus Teacher. Paint a picture based on one of them.
  2. Imagine that you are an explorer who finds a creature never before seen by a human being. Write a diary entry about your encounter.

Some People Say...

“We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.”

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), German philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that some creatures are far more intelligent than people give them credit for. Craig Foster argues that the octopus – whose brain is spread throughout its body – is as clever as a dog or one of the lower primates. Pigeons can remember hundreds of photographs; rats can find their way out of complicated mazes in a matter of minutes; gorillas can master human sign language – and pigs have been taught to play video games.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether zoos should be abolished. Many people believe that it is cruel to keep wild creatures in captivity, and that zoos serve little educational purpose now that we can learn so much about animals from films and videos. But zoos also carry out important conservation work, and may have saved some species from extinction.

Word Watch

Prestigious
Respected and admired. It used to mean deceitful, as in a conjuror’s trick, but evolved to mean dazzlingly impressive.
Photomicrography
Photography using a microscope. The earliest micrographic pictures, of blood cells, date back to 1850.
Crevice
A narrow crack, particularly in the surface of a rock. It is not to be confused with “crevasse”, which means a deep hole, though both derive from the old French word “crever”, meaning to break or burst.
Predators
Creatures which hunt, kill and eat others. The octopus itself is a predator, feeding largely on shellfish such as crabs and lobsters.
Kelp
A large brown type of seaweed. It can grow as fast as half a metre per day.
Pyjama shark
A comparatively small shark that gets its name from its striped body.
Poignant
Causing emotion that goes right to your heart. A poignard is a type of dagger.
Kalahari Desert
A huge desert in Africa, some 350,000 square miles in size, covering parts of Botswana, Namibia and South Africa.

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