Aug. 28, 2012 at 1:04 PM ET
Meet Austria’s young marmot whisperer. Eight-year-old Matteo Walch’s friendship with a clan of Alpine animals has spanned more than half his lifetime.
“When we come, they run straight to him,” Matteo's mother, Michaela Walch, a mathematics teacher and amateur photographer, told TODAY.com.
The mother-and-son team have been traveling from their home in Innsbruck to Hohe Tauern National Park in Grossglockner to spend time with the large ground squirrels since Matteo was just 3 years old.
Like a horse whisperer or dog whisperer, the schoolboy has an uncanny ability to interact with the normally skittish wild animals — even greeting them nose to nose and having them climb in his lap.
“The first time we came, four marmots jumped on top of him and he was falling down, smiling and laughing,” said his mother.
Because Grosslockner is home to some of the world’s most stunning mountains, the marmots are accustomed to busloads of tourists attempting to feed them chocolates and cookies. But “they always keep their distance,” the 46-year-old single parent said.
“It’s different with Matteo; these pictures show how he is with the marmots and how they are so used to him,” she said. “He knows how to feel and manage every animal; I am very proud of how he acts with them.”
Matteo and his mom visit the marmots — about two dozen individuals split between two or three interlinked groups — for two weeks every summer and spend many hours with them every day.
Before becoming a mother, Michaela traveled to such exotic destinations as Alaska, Ethiopia and Israel to photograph wildlife. But, she now sticks closer to home and takes her son on the shoots he enjoys.
The amateur photographer said she always abides by her philosophy that “one has to understand the animals before one can take pictures without disturbing them.” She joked that she will only photograph animals that “want to be photographed,” — a time-consuming effort that yields the best images.
“The picture of a curious animal approaching me is a thousand times more beautiful than the picture of any animal looking at me in fear just before it takes off in flight,” she said.
When photographing Matteo and his marmot buddies, she said, “I want to show the harmony between the boy and the animals.”
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