Just how well can an elephant paint, anyway?

Via noob.us, I found an intriguing video which has been making the rounds. An elephant in Thailand named Hong has been taught to paint – really well. Watch the video, be astonished, then go below the fold to be brought back to Earth (a bit)…

Stunning, right? The video appeared on a british documentary series called “Extraordinary Animals”, which apparently was first run at the beginning of this year. The video clip online, sadly incomplete, documents the work of Hong at the Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project, which was started as a way to support elephants which have found themselves out of work after the banning of logging in Thailand. The skills of Hong would seem to be a testament that elephants, though already thought to be smart, are much smarter than we could have imagined.

If you look carefully, though, at any of the numerous videos of elephants painting elephants online, you’ll notice that the elephant’s trainer is always standing beside him/her during the painting process. As is mentioned (apparently) in the documentary, “the astonishing figurative paintings Hong produces are actually the result of her trainer standing beside her with a hand on her tusk, ‘almost like a technician working with robotic arms.’ ” In the end it’s a bit of a trick, then, but a forgivable one, because the trick actually keeps the elephants fed and happy.

This would seem like the end of the story: the elephant is just “following orders”, without any interest or desire to paint what it’s actually painting. However, it turns out that elephants actually like to paint, and will do so without prompting, once the technique has been demonstrated to them. This has been known for years, and numerous zoos actually help support their elephant populations with painting sales.

I was ahead of the curve on this; a number of years ago I purchased a pair of elephant paintings from the Knoxville Zoo, one as a gift for my young niece and one for my own enjoyment. My selection appears below:

This painting was done by Mamie, a 36-year-old African elephant (it’s going above the fireplace in the new house my girlfriend and I are building – right, sweetie?). I think the zoo will forgive me if I quote from their flyer:

Although Mamie is the oldest female and has been at the zoo for many years, she is a subordinate animal. As the female elephant with the lowest status in the herd, Mamie hasn’t had much confidence in herself – something her trainers were interested in changing. They decided to increase the amount of time and attention Mamie got – enriching her life by giving her something positive to think about.

Just how do you teach an elephant to paint? Mamie started by learning retrieval behavior – give it back, don’t eat it. Once she figured this out, she began drawing with sidewalk chalk. Since then, she’s learned to hold a brush and create paintings. Mamie’s behavior has improved. She’s more confident and she seeks attention.

So elephants actually enjoy the activity of painting, though the amount of aesthetic enjoyment they get out of their work is highly debatable. Elephants are surprisingly intelligent, though. One of my favorite anecdotes (taken from The Parrot’s Lament) involves group strategy at a zoo. The zookeepers would use feeding time as a way to get all the elephants into the enclosure for the night. The elephants, figuring this out, started to feed in shifts so that someone was always outside and the doors could not be closed!

The Thai conservation workers have also taught some of the elephants to play musical instruments, and a CD is available of their works. Much like the artwork, the music is scattered and seemingly random most of the time, but occasionally a glimmer of intent shines forth.

In closing, it’s worth mentioning that the Knoxville Zoo’s elephant paintings are much cheaper than the Thai conservation paintings. You can get an original elephant print for $50.00 online! I highly recommend them for a young niece, nephew, son or daughter as a gift that will get them thinking about the relationship between humans and animals in a new light.

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3 Responses to Just how well can an elephant paint, anyway?

  1. Honey – while it is a stunning painting, I don’t think above the fireplace is the best place to highlight it. Maybe in your bonus/guitar room? 😉

  2. babs67: So you admit that you hate elephants? 🙂

  3. You know that is not true! I love ALL animals! Maybe this elephant is happy because she paints
    (not sure if this link works since there isn’t a PREVIEW option – so apologies if it doesn’t)

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