The National Zoo is full of wild animals. Many of them are not behind bars.
I’m talking about squirrels, those amazingly common creatures whose lives — to them, anyway — are no less dramatic than those of tigers or tamarins. And, certainly, a squirrel’s daily routine is more action-packed than a giant panda’s.
Not that the squirrel photographed at the zoo by Angela Napili was engaged in any great life-or-death struggle. It was just chilling in the sun.
Angela is the winner of this year’s Washington Post Squirrel Week Squirrel Photo Contest. Her photograph sounds simple — a gray squirrel on a tree — but it spoke to the judges. The squirrel is in that characteristic pose that only creatures with swiveling wrist and ankle joints can strike: hanging facedown from a tree trunk. Its back is arched. Its eyes are closed. The sun is shining.
That sun. After this long Washington winter, there was something about the sunlight that just stirred us. The squirrel seemed to be channeling that exact moment when we realize, with relief, that spring really is coming.
There were 598 entries in our second annual photo contest, almost twice as many as last year. I’m confident that we’re well on our way to becoming the nation’s leading squirrel photography contest. (Take that, New York Times.)
Angela lives in the District and is a reference librarian at the Library of Congress. She likes taking her Nikon and long zoom lens to the National Zoo to capture the animals there. In early March, she was at the zoo shooting the lion cubs. There was still snow on the ground, but the sun was out. She spied a squirrel on a tree about nine feet away and turned her camera away from the charismatic megafauna to focus on the ubiquitous minifauna.
“I think they’re adorable,” Angela said of squirrels. “I know that when they bury their nuts or acorns or whatever, they accidentally forget where they are sometimes and [the nuts] end up being trees. That’s nice, right?”
Yes, it is. And to me, there’s something fitting about squirrels being responsible for some of the oaks that future generations will live in. What’s that saying? “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”
That’s squirrels to a tree, er, T.
What does it take to create a great squirrel photo? Well, it has to be in focus and well-exposed, something that isn’t as easy as it sounds. (Trust me. I looked at 598 squirrel photos.) But it has to have additional oomph. The photo can be anthropomorphic, or show some essential squirrelness. It can be humorous. It can capture a moment that we may never have noticed, despite the thousands of times we’ve looked at squirrels. It can show a squirrel burying its face in a homemade ceramic bird feeder shaped like a shark’s head. (Finalist Tena Page ’s photo did.)
We picked 23 photos as our favorites. You can see them at wapo.st/squirrel-photos.
“Plenty of people have disparaging things to say about squirrels, but I find them hilarious,” wrote Candace McFetridge, who got a lens full of squirrel snout while walking in London’s Green Park. “Whether they’re taunting my dogs just out of reach in a tree or sneaking seeds from the bird feeder, they’re nature’s comic relief.”
Finalist Kristy Casto said that she didn’t pay much attention to squirrels until one took up residence in her holly tree and used her Ashburn, Va., deck as an alfresco dining space. “I’ve learned through observation of this squirrel that they are pretty amazing animals,” she wrote. “I don’t think they are given the credit they deserve for their exceptional athleticism, resiliency and problem-solving skills.”
That’s what we try to do here during Squirrel Week: celebrate a lowly creature that refuses to accept that it’s lowly, a reminder that we needn’t think small, either.
This year’s edition — our fifth annual! — is officially over, but from now till next April, I’ll be pulling together material for Squirrel Week 2016. Gathering nuts while the sun shines, you might say.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.