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 frog hangs from a twig, its pose suggestive of a drunken man propping up a bar.

These 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.

There is an equally unforgettable image at the start of a new film 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. Then the rock moves: it is an octopus.

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.

He first spotted the female octopus in a kelp forest. Gradually, the creature came to trust him. In one scene, Foster reaches out his hand towards her – and she responds by touching it with one of her tentacles.

The film is made 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 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. They have an instinctive understanding of the natural world 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 technological society. Education needs to be geared to subjects that will help us thrive in the modern world and allow us to express ourselves.

You Decide

  1. Which is the most intelligent creature you know of?

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.

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.
Kelp
A large brown type of seaweed. It can grow as fast as half a metre per day.
Poignant
Causing emotion that goes right to your heart. A poignard is a type of dagger.

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