Lisa Vanderhoop has been photographing dogs for most of her professional career, so it’s not surprising that she’s captured more than a few funny animal shots. However, it’s not a canine who has earned her worldwide recognition, rather, a turtle — yes, a turtle. Vanderpool’s photo of a Chilmark snapping turtle recently placed her in the finals of the annual Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards.
The image was the result of a fortuitous encounter between the photographer and the ornery reptile. Vanderhoop recalled the scene: “I was coming up Squibnocket where it curves around and there’s a slow sign. I look and thought, ‘What the heck is that thing in the road?’ I got out of the car — it was this huge snapping turtle. It was one of those moments where I thought, ‘Am I really seeing this?’ I didn’t dare get too close. Those things are gnarly. They’re from the time of the dinosaurs — their claws are like three inches long. I later spoke to a scientist who explained that their necks can jet out really far when they feel threatened.”
Putting her understandable trepidation aside, the photographer got close enough to shoot, but not so close that she might scare her model away. “It annoyed the turtle to have me there, and he moved even closer to the slow sign. I was literally snapping away at the snapper. Finally, it just kind of twisted its head, gave me the stink eye, and snarled at me.” That was the money shot, grabbed right before the turtle ambled off to the side of the road.
Of course, it’s the juxtaposition of the slow sign and the not-so-fleet pedestrian that makes the shot, but if one looks closely, the sign also reads, “No Parking This Street,” which adds a bit more irony to the situation — where the turtle appears to be settled in for the day, in the middle of the road.
The photo is among 40 selected for this year’s awards. The competition includes images ranging from a surfing penguin, laughing zebras, a tree-hugging bear, dancing lions, foxes, and rabbits, a camouflaged deer, a surprised-looking fish, and a smiling insect. For those fond of the PG-rated, there are also images of a farting penguin, a rhino relieving himself on a bird, and two monkeys caught shamefacedly in flagrante.
The contest aims to entertain as well as raise awareness and funds for conservation initiatives. According to the website, “The Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards was the result of two factors: Firstly, a need for a photography competition that was lighthearted, upbeat, possibly unpretentious, and mainly about wildlife doing funny things. Secondly, and way more importantly, this competition is about conservation.” The site includes information on how people can help protect the environment, and links to organizations like Born Free, whose mission is to preserve and protect wildlife in its natural habitat.
A percentage of the proceeds from the sales of books and prints are donated to the Born Free Foundation.
Vanderhoop’s is the only photo of a reptile among the finalists, and she admits, “Reptiles don’t usually win these sort of things.” It’s not surprising, since turtles aren’t generally known for their acting ability or anthropomorphic tendencies. Still, the image is among those featured on websites around the globe, including Forbes, USA Today, and the BBC. The Chilmark snapper is gaining recognition on websites for media organizations as far as China and beyond.
The contest includes a People’s Choice Awards. You can vote online on the organization’s website at comedywildlifephoto.com.
Although Vanderhoop is best known for her annual “Vineyard SeaDogs” calendar and commissioned pooch portraits, Vanderhoop has quite a bit of history with turtles. Before moving to the Vineyard, the photographer enjoyed a 20-plus-year career as an associate producer of science and nature documentaries — working for National Geographic, National Audubon Society, the Nature Series, ABC, the New England Aquarium, and various PBS productions. In many cases, she worked on documentaries focused on turtles.
“In some ways I feel like turtles are kind of my spirit animal,” says Vanderhoop, who is married to renowned fishing charter captain and Wampanoag tribe member Buddy Vanderhoop. “I’ve done so many turtle films. I worked on a film on the Galapagos on giant tortoises. I did a leatherback turtle project in Costa Rica for almost a year. I worked with Peter Pritchard, who wrote the end-all book on turtles. I’ve really been up close and personal with turtles.”
Despite the attention, Vanderhoop’s reptilian model has gained, it’s not likely that she’ll switch her focus to turtle photography. She’s been publishing her “SeaDogs” calendar for 12 years now, and her brilliant dog photography has proven extremely popular. The calendar has been featured on the Today Show, and was once listed as the No. 1 best animal calendar by People magazine.
This year’s calendar features dozens of photos of local doggies romping joyfully on surf and sand. And, quite honestly, for humor and general smile appeal, a turtle really can’t compete with a pack of playful puppies.