The wild true stories behind the 21 funniest animal photos of all time: ‘It only lasted half a second, but I was ready’

<span>Photograph: Arturo Telle Thiemann</span>
Photograph: Arturo Telle Thiemann

Though all nature’s creatures have their own dignity, they also have a capacity for dim-wittedness, clumsiness and all-round foolishness. For every proud and noble hound, nose lifted to the breeze, there will be a gawky, graceless mutt scooting across the rug. For every majestic stallion thundering impressively over the sand, there is a cantankerous nag pinning its ears to its skull as it snakes its head over the stable door. And these might be the very same animals, just moments apart.

For as long as there have been cameras, people have shared funny animal pictures. From black-and-white snaps of chimps in suits and dogs with pipes, through home videos and Animals Do the Funniest Things in the noughties, to the present, when finalists from the annual Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards – well represented among this selection – routinely go viral, the appeal is evergreen. It bubbles up from the same well of comedy: a tension between an animal’s true nature and the human connotations they have unwittingly stumbled upon.

Perhaps these photos say more about our human whims. Anyone who shares their life with an animal knows the strange infusion of affection, pathos and humour that flavours our interactions with other species. Does a fish care that its teeth remind the viewer of a goofy cartoon character? It has no concept of it. Does a cat mind if its overhanging belly casts a similar silhouette to that of an old gangster? Not a bit. Funny animal photos are felt to be harmless yet retain a trace of the taboo: a conflict that stems from the knowledge that, as endearing and relatable as their behaviour may appear to be, we will never truly understand what’s going on in their minds.

If comedy grows from subverting an audience’s expectations, then the more human the animal’s pose, the better. As Jason Moore, this year’s winner of the Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards for his photo of a kangaroo appearing to play the guitar, said: “I will always look for opportunities to capture examples of anthropomorphism. This type of image is among the most successful in attracting and holding an audience’s attention.”

Our brains are programmed to enjoy bears waving from the beach, stressed out squirrels throwing shapes, and monkeys mugging for the camera. They remind us of ourselves – only sillier – and in so doing, remind us that life need not be entirely solemn.

Talk to the Fin, Jennifer Hadley, 2017

The Falkland Islands are one of the world’s penguin capitals; an estimated one million, from five different species, must share the beaches when they nest there each year. US wildlife photographer Jennifer Hadley captured this lively interaction between a gentoo penguin and its magellanic neighbour. “In this particular instance,” Hadley has said, “the penguins had been swimming, and as they stumbled on to land, the one on the right shook himself off and gave his mate ‘the fin’.”

Weasel Hitching a Lift, Martin Le-May, 2015

It was a photo that would sweep the internet, rack up millions of views and inspire almost as many memes: the weasel riding on a woodpecker. But photographer Martin Le-May, an amateur birder from Essex, didn’t realise what he had captured at the time. “My wife had never seen a green woodpecker,” he says, “and I knew a few places they might be.” After they spotted a bird feeding on the ground, it suddenly took off with “a funny screeching sound”. The couple “didn’t think any more of it”, but later, when reviewing his shots, Le-May realised he had stumbled on to something strange. Though it is a comically surreal scene, the image captured a real sense of danger: the woodpecker was fending off an attack, and thankfully escaped with its life. “I called my wife through [showed her the photo] and said, ‘That’s not bad, is it?’” A friend uploaded it to Twitter, where it was picked up by BuzzFeed. Then, says Le-May, things got weird. “A neighbour knocked on the door with a message from the BBC. People were ringing from all over – from South Africa, New Zealand. It got crazy. I began to understand why celebrities get precious about their personal space.”

Buffalo Having a Bad Day, Tom Stables, 2016

It looks like it’s been one of those days for this longsuffering buffalo, captured in Kenya’s Meru National Park by Tom Stables while documenting work by the Born Free Foundation. The region, says Stables, is “relatively barren and sparsely populated”, so coming across this disreputable pair, in this uncomfortable post-poo moment, brought Stables some levity after a long day bumping around on safari. “I’m always looking for humour,” he says. “It makes conservation a little more accessible, and lets us engage with a different audience.”

Station Squabble, Sam Rowley, 2016

BBC film-maker and photographer Sam Rowley captured this astonishing scene of mice apparently squabbling for dropped crumbs after he had spent five cold nights lying flat on a London Underground platform. “The main challenge wasn’t finding the wildlife, but the logistics,” he says. “Every time someone came over to talk to me, the mice would scatter and I’d have a 10-minute lovely, yet distracting, conversation on my hands.” After hours of patiently waiting, he witnessed a short-lived scuffle that broke out among the rodents. “It only lasted half a second, but fortunately I was ready with my finger on the trigger. I didn’t immediately love the photo; if you look closely the mice are slightly softly focused. This is an immediate red flag for me, no matter what the rest of the image looks like. It was only years later, when I was going through old photos, that I rediscovered it.” Rowley has since photographed hyenas, vultures and Galápagos tortoises – but “it’s the little old mice of the London Underground that have captured people’s imaginations.”

Slap, Troy Mayne, 2007

When you’re a professional underwater photographer, you have a different kind of relationship with the colleagues you see day in, day out, says Troy Mayne, an underwater photographer based in Cairns, Australia. “I spent many years with these particular critters on the Great Barrier Reef. Wally, the fish, is a close personal friend,” he says. “The turtles are close acquaintances as well.” They’re a rowdy bunch: out on the reef, they will crowd around him, “pushing, biting or slapping out of jealousy or to get my attention”. He captures one such moment here, as the turtle jostles its way into view.

Sheepish Smile, Charlie Mackinnon, 2014

It was just another day at the sheep yard for Izzie the black kelpie until, as Tasmanian farmer Charlie MacKinnon put it, his “best dog” got caught. Izzy was helping herd sheep on MacKinnon’s family farm when she slipped and got stuck, Mackinnon has said: “Izzy just sat there like in the photo looking at me, so I whipped out my phone and took this shot.” She was quickly rescued. A single print of the photo was pinned on MacKinnon’s fridge for years before he entered it in a sheep photography competition – it soon won the hearts of thousands when it went viral on social media.

Air Guitar Roo, Jason Moore, 2021

Despite their reputation for hijinks, kangaroos are “fairly docile and even a bit boring most of the time”, says Jason Moore, a photographer based in Perth, Australia. Still, their “gorgeous” faces make compelling portraits, with an anthropomorphic quality that draws the eye. “Simply put, people instantly relate to human-like expressions or poses in animals, and we all find these images cute, humorous or generally pleasing to observe.” This female, apparently mid-guitar solo, is no different. The picture, winner of the 2023 Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards, was taken at golden hour during Western Australia’s wildflower season, when the otherwise arid landscape is awash with colour and, unfortunately for Moore, the grass is thick with ticks and biting insects. “The lengths we photographers will go to, just to get that image!” he says.

Caught in the Act, Mary McGowan, 2015

Amateur snapper Mary McGowan became familiar with her neighbours by leaving out seeds and nuts for birds and squirrels which hang out in her Florida garden. She had only a few seconds to capture the gesticulations of this indignant individual, who has all the furious intensity of an irate New York pedestrian. “He was coughing or something, but after a few seconds he was just fine and went back to eating,” McGowan has said.

Monkey Selfie, Naruto, 2011

This cheeky monkey mugshot was taken by an endangered Celebes crested macaque using equipment owned by British photographer David Slater. After several days befriending a troop of macaques in Sulawesi, Indonesia, Slater set up a selfie-station to turn their curiosity to his own ends. “Once they started to touch the camera and play with the cable release,” he says, “I had to move closer to steady the tripod from being knocked over. It was when I was lying prostrate on the forest floor steadying the tripod that I heard the familiar sound of shots being fired. Looking up, I saw a delighted macaque pulling faces at its own reflection as the shutter was firing. It was utterly hilarious.”

The monkey selfie made headlines around the world, and became the subject of an extended legal dispute after animal rights group Peta filed a lawsuit in 2015 requesting Naruto, the macaque, be recognised as copyright holder (the US court ruled in 2018 that the animal “lacked statutory standing to claim copyright infringement of photographs”.) Slater and Peta agreed a settlement, with Slater donating 25% of future revenue from the images to charities for crested macaques. The legal case took over his life, says Slater, but “the interest in and promotion of the plight of these rare macaques was just compensation for me”.

Damn! Nicolas de Vaulx, 2016

Photographer Nicolas de Vaulx was documenting the Dalmatian pelicans that frequent Lake Kerkini, Greece, in the winter months when he caught this ungainly moment on film. “They sometimes fish in groups,” he explains, “and there can be altercations. In this case, another pelican managed to intimidate him into letting go of the fish, and stole it.” Nicolas never sets out to capture comic scenes – “It’s not what I’m looking for” – but says that when you hang around for long enough, they come to you.

Waving Bear, Alan Vernon, 2007

Brown bears living in coastal Alaska gorge on fish in the summer months, building up their fat stores to get them through the hard winter. Amateur photographer Alan Vernon caught this relaxed individual chillaxing on a gravel bar between meals. “Most of the time he laid on his belly,” Vernon said in a post about the photo, “but for a short time he laid on his back and put on this show. I was on the beach with six other people standing about 100 yards away. It was a precious moment.”

The Big Boss, Kenichi Morinaga, 2023

News of the large feral feline population on Japan’s Ainoshima island acted as catnip to professional cat photographer Kenichi Morinaga. “My shooting style is walking from morning until sunset, without lunch, to find lazy cats,” he says. This heavyweight individual lounging harbourside with a mafioso air immediately caught his eye. “This big boss makes us smile … Maybe he has a good build. That, and his way of sitting is so embarrassing and lazy. That’s why it is funny.”

Shake, Carli Davidson, 2012

Professional pet photographer Carli Davidson’s Shake series is a masterpiece of animal comedy: a brilliant visual gag played entirely straight. In a sequence of perfectly focused, glossily stage-managed images, dogs of all shapes and sizes are seen shaking and shuddering, jiggling and juddering, twisting and torsioning, ears flapping, jowls flopping, and spittle flying. The shots, she has said, are “playful, lighthearted and somewhat bizarre … The first time I uploaded the photos, I couldn’t stop laughing, I knew I had to keep shooting and create a body of work.” She used “a variety of techniques” to set the dogs off, some involving “wetting them down”, although she wasn’t prepared to reveal them in full: “I’m not giving all of my secrets away just yet.”

Smiley the Fish, Arturo Telle Thiemann, 2015

Underwater photographer Arturo Telle Thiemann was diving off El Hierro, in the Canary Islands, when he bumped into this very cheerful Mediterranean parrotfish, whose toothsome grin looks straight out of Finding Nemo. “I saw this particular fish, with its special ‘smile’, and waited, laying quietly on the rock,” he says. “I took a few pictures from farther away, just to make sure, and then the fish swam directly towards me for an instant, giving me time for just one more … the perfect shot.” Fish can be tricky photo subjects, he adds – and shy of the “huge bubbling monster invading their space”. But Telle Thiemann remembers the words of the great Bruce Lee as he blends in as well as he can: “Be water, my friend.”

WTF?! George Cathcart, 2016

Every year, elephant seals gather on a particular beach near San Simeon in California, says the American nature photographer George Cathcart: “In December, thousands of seals of all ages haul out to give birth, nurse their babies and mate, before returning to the water.” Bull seals come ashore to “stake out territories”, he says, often physically sparring – a bloody if somewhat ungainly process. “They can be quite comical as they go about swatting each other with their noses,” he says. “As far as I know, there are no Marquess of Queensberry rules among elephant seals, but this one does seem to think his opponent hit below the belt, so to speak.”

Portrait of an Arrogant Beagle,
Patrick Reymer, 2018

Related: In the dog house: why are so many of Britain’s dogs behaving badly?

Dutch pet photographer Patrick Reymer often took portraits of his own dog, an “arrogant” beagle called Kayne, between appointments. “It was fun to do in between other assignments, and Kayne enjoyed the attention,” he says. Kayne, a laid-back character, liked to relax by resting his weight on one elbow. “One of the most important things about animal photography is making them feel happy, then you’ll see their real character and they will surprise you with their poses.” Reymer bought the beagle as a puppy in 2005 when he had to leave his job due to kidney failure: “I needed a friend.” Out walking in the park one day, the two bachelors met a woman called Lyda and her dalmatian, Kiki. The two dogs “fell in love instantly”, Patrick says; the humans followed their lead. “All we could do was buy a house so they could enjoy each other’s company.” Sadly, both dogs died within a few weeks of each other in 2019, but their owners’ lives had been changed for ever. Lyda donated a kidney to Patrick in 2020, and the couple live together still.

Get Off My Branch! Gurumoorthy K, 2021

It seems this Indian chameleon – as photographed in the Western Ghats mountain range by Gurumoorthy K – would like you to keep off his lawn. Chameleons change their colours for communication and to thermoregulate; bright colours, like this vivid green, tend to indicate that they are seeking a mate.

Shy Bear, Esa Ringbom, 2020

Esa Ringbom has spent more than 30 years photographing large predators in the wilderness of eastern Finland and along the Russian border, like this shy brown bear playing peekaboo hebind a tree near Kuhmo. If a photographer sits quietly in a hide, the bears feel comfortable enough to approach at close quarters – sometimes only a metre or so away. “This bear obviously knew I was there, but it didn’t seem to bother it,” she says. In other circumstances, however, “a bear is a shy and cautious animal. We humans have a hard time encountering one in the wild. If they sense something unusual, they hastily make their leave.”

The Trunk, Suliman Alatiqi, 2022

Suliman Alatiqi had to get up close and personal with an elephant to capture this unusual angle of it cooling off in the sea off Phuket, Thailand. Submerging himself chest-deep in water so close to the massive animal was, he says, “intimidating”. “I worried about falling or being accidentally stomped on,” he says, “but the elephant was friendly, which helped.” Initially, he planned a classic “over-under” perspective of the elephant, showing its body above the surface, and its legs underwater. But poor visibility forced a more creative approach. “Seeing the elephant was curious enough to inspect my camera gave me the idea of experimenting.” After a failed attempt, Alatiqi returned later when the angle of the sun had changed, illuminating the nostrils to create this uniquely intimate image.

Pegasus, the Flying Horse, Jagdeep Rajput, 2010

Timing is everything in photography, and never more clearly than in wildlife photography. Jagdeep Rajput’s perfectly aligned image, in which a disagreement between a nilgai – a type of antelope – and a sarus crane creates the brief illusion of a Pegasus-like winged figure. In reality, the bird was repulsing a visitor who had trespassed too far into his territory. Patience is the key to the art of wildlife photography says Rajput, who visits India’s Keoladeo national park three or four times a year for several days at a time: one must learn to enjoy being immersed in nature “irrespective of the end result”.

Polar Bear Cub Grabs a Ride,
Daisy Gilardini, 2015

Daisy Gilardini has photographed polar bears on expeditions to the Svalbard archipelago, Greenland, Russia and the Canadian high Arctic. She says nothing is more rewarding that witnessing a mama bear leaving her den in spring with her new cubs – but to do so means braving temperatures of -50C or below. “The bitterly cold hours, days and weeks waiting in front of a den are worth every single second,” she says. The cold is “a challenge”: a camera will slowly freeze, starting with the batteries, then the control panel and monitor. Soon the photographer must shoot without seeing what’s on the screen. “It comes with practice,” says Gilardini. “The only way to learn is to keep shooting and hope for the best.” In this instance, the cubs’ mother was hurrying downhill through deep snow. It was hard going for her two little ones, one of which decided “it was much more convenient to hitch a ride on mama’s behind. He jumped and reached out, holding on with a firm bite on mama’s fur backside: an extremely funny and totally unexpected behaviour.”