This article is not about the natural history related behavior of wild animals. It is more about how we perceive them, photograph them, and what those images say to us. Some of my experiences in the field may color my view in this article, but little that is truly scientific was used. We’re just a bunch of photographers having a discussion.
We are all animals in the animal, vegetable, mineral sense. That often means our emotions can be tweaked by wildlife images. Those emotions can be uplifting, sentimental, horror filled and more. Our kinship with animals often prompts us to anthropomorphize them. Don’t feel bad if you want humanize them, I have been known to do the same.
I think we all can agree that we share the emotions of fear and anger with the animal kingdom. Personally I believe that joy (happiness) is also a shared emotion. Scientists are still debating whether animals can feel sadness the way we do. I am not a scientist but I am a believer that animals do feel sadness or sorrow. I have seen it, even though I tend to look at things through skeptical eyes. Among domestic animals, I have seen what I believe to be actual depression and possibly sorrow in horses. I know that most humans feel that they see love in the animal world as well. A mother being gentle with her offspring, or two friends gently grooming each other may or may not be love. I think the canine world from wolves to dogs, primates, and elephants come the closest to showing what truly seems to be love. They do display behaviors that at least mimic what we call love. Humor is what really separates us from the rest. I know what you’re saying. Come on have you ever watched a Chimpanzee, or even a dog. Well, they do things that make us laugh but do they really see the humor in it? Humor, even at its most basic form ( slapstick, one liners, etc.) is an intellectual experience. Logical thinking is used to understand humor. There is very little that is instinctual or even innate about it. I guess I would agree that the jury is still out on how funny animals “intend” to be.
I do think we anthropomorphize mammals even more than other animals. We are of course mammals ourselves. It seems to me that among the mammal world we assign the biggest assumption of human like thought to primates such as Gorillas, Chimpanzees, Orangutans, Monkeys and Lemurs. We are of course primates. While primates are very high on the IQ scale, so are marine mammals and some other critters. We relate to primates better. After all we’re primates and we’re smart. Right?
Ultimately my thoughts generally go back to photography. This medium can be used to accentuate, or diminish human like behavior in the animal world. Often times the success of a wildlife photo, be it mammal, bird, marine animal or reptile, rests on how the viewer will relate to the animal in the photo. The more human they seem, the more we love it.
Our first picture today shows two young American Kestrel siblings either having a nice moment or a face off, you decide. The image was created by Raymond Barlow and wouldn’t we all want to have this picture in our files.
This photo is another one of those great shots by Charles Glatzer. As wildlife photographers, I would think we would also all want this picture of a Polar Bear with a seal in our files, although our emotions are surely different with this picture than with the first. Does this subject matter make the image seem cruel and inhuman like? I wonder if (human) hunters would like this one.
This picture of a Gibbon Monkey was made at the Oakland Zoo by Laurie Rubin. Laurie always owns up to images made in zoos, and she is becoming one of the best in the business at zoo photography. Does this primate picture conjure up memories of human behavior? As kids, we used to do the same thing at the schoolyard on the “monkey bars”
What about this old Chimp (also by Laurie)? Does he not seem a bit like some “grumpy old men“ you have known?
A few of my own.
A fox running across a field may not fit the criteria of being human like, but a parent with its child surely does. Love or just instinct?
Hands? Animals that have hands, or paws that closely simulate hands, are always popular with people. We can relate. This is a young White-tailed Prairie Dog.
Teamwork. American White Pelicans in the act of codependent fishing. Humans are not always the best team players, but when the chips are down we usually come through.
Feeling left out? All of us at some time or another have been chosen last or felt left out of the group. Of course this cormorant is really just waiting for those pelicans to stir up some fish….or is he? White Pelicans and Double-crested Cormorant.
Photography is realism. That’s true whether the images we make are straight forward or very abstract. We know that it began with real life. As a medium, wildlife photography can act as a beacon of the truth, or the carrier of human emotion…….even if our subjects are not human. Either purpose is valid. One brings education and wonder. The other allows us to believe, if only for a moment, that our furry and feathered friends, feel the same way, and go through the same things we do. We can relate.
Enjoy our animal friends whether it be a Snow Leopard in the Himalayas, or your pet dog or cat that is laying at your feet as you read this.
I have spent several years writing about, and sharing pictures from the many great places in North America that I have visited. It might be surprising, but I have not come close to describing everywhere I have been. I even have some images hiding deep in my slide files from some great locations. I am (only slightly) considering seeking a few out and sharing them. I think the four most photographic locations I have been to without sharing pictures would be, Capital Reef N. P. in Utah, Death Valley N. P., the Canadian Rockies (only a few snapshots from here) and the Bighorn Mountains and Black Hills of eastern Wyoming. I have been to other great nature places from the Adirondack Mountains of New York to most of Florida, about half of California and a little of British Columbia Canada visited as a day trip on my journey to Washington State. As I child, my family and I pretty much toured the eastern half of North America. I have great memories (no pictures) from New York City, to Washington D.C, to French Canada. If nothing else I may start sharing stories from those great journeys. Every trip that we take is a journey, and they are all worth sharing. Wayne
This article reminds me of all those times witnessing a scene unfold, what are they really thinking, are they really thinking or just reacting.
I don’t think there is anything more fun than photographing wildlife and wondering why they do what they do. Do they think it through the way we do, or is it just a reaction? Thanks for the comment Gary!