SALT LAKE CITY — You're destined to find giraffes, zebras, elephants and more once you enter the gates of Utah's Hogle Zoo. But did you know some of these animals are also artists and, more specifically, painters?
With help from zookeepers, the animals are guided to create original works of art.
Animals painting in zoos is not a new concept, according to Erica Hansen, manager of community relations at Hogle Zoo.
"It came about just because these animal care staff at AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) zoos across the country are always looking for ways to both challenge themselves and challenge the animal," Hansen said.
Hansen said the painting activity increases trust between animals and keepers. This trust allows the keepers to inspect the animals to make sure they're healthy.
"Our animals can participate in their own health care, which is huge in zoos because then you can give them a checkup without having to anesthetize them to get access to their body," Hansen said. "If you can have a tiger show you his paw, it's much, much better off if he does it on his own accord."
Christie, a 31-year-old elephant, is a painter. Her daughter Zuri, 8, also paints. Lauren Palumbo, lead elephant keeper and elephant manager, said because elephants are higher-cognitive animals, zookeepers are able to teach them many things, and teaching the elephants to paint is another way for them to be creative and to strengthen the relationship with their keepers.
Painting with the elephants is a multistep process, according to Palumbo.
"Christie already knows how to give us her trunk, and then basically we train her to hold the paintbrush, and then we reward her (with food) when she touches the paintbrush to the canvas," Palumbo said.
None of the animals are forced to paint, but the keepers know Christie really enjoys painting.
"Christie does this kind of gurgling noise, we call it, and it's kind of what we consider her happy noise," Palumbo said. "When she's doing activities that we think she enjoys, she makes this kind of noise. So painting is something that she definitely enjoys; she always gurgles before she paints."
All the paint used is nontoxic acrylic and is safe for the animals, Palumbo said, and there are standard guidelines for all the animals for when they paint.
After Christie the elephant painted one day, it was the meerkats' turn. A family of three meerkats — one adult male, one adult female and their 2-year-old — all participated in painting. Theirs was different from the elephants' technique, in that the meerkats stepped around on the canvas rather than holding a paintbrush.
"We'll go in with bugs — bugs are always their favorite; by far, superworms are the best — and we put paint on a canvas, and then kind of encourage them to run around on it," said Melissa Knutson, primary relief keeper of Desert Zone. "We'll give them lots of rewards, lots of treats while they're running around, and then eventually get them off the canvas and be able to take it back out."
When the meerkats finish painting, Knutson goes back in with a tub of water and lets the meerkats run around through it so they can wash the paint off their bodies.
The meerkats don't paint too often; it might be once a month, according to Knutson.
After the family of meerkats painted, it was time for two harbor seals and a sea lion to paint. Michelle Hanenburg, keeper at Rocky Shores, said most of the seals and sea lions have been trained to use their mouths to hold a paintbrush that is attached to a hose, making it an easier, squishier bite.
Diego the sea lion came to Hogle from a zoo in Indianapolis and already knew how to paint. Hanenburg said it took about six months to train seals Mira and Hudson. Hudson was the only animal the entire day that wasn’t painting on canvas but, instead, was decorating a wineglass.
"We had to start with training them to hold stuff in their mouth, and then from there you want them to hold it and then move, and now you have to hold it, move and touch this scary, weird square thing I'm putting up in front of your face," Hanenburg said.
The elephants, seals and sea lions usually paint a few times a week. According to Hansen, the great apes, orangutans, the gorillas, lizards and some other small animals also paint.
"Our wolves have painted. They'll walk through the paint so you'll get some cool paw prints," Hansen said.
All the paintings these animals create are sold in the gift shop at the zoo, and 100 percent of the proceeds go toward organizations that help each particular species.
For the elephants, proceeds go to the International Elephant Foundation, which helps fight poaching.
"Ninety-six elephants a day are killed for ivory, which is kind of insane," Palumbo said. "So this is an organization that will help with any sort of tracking that they need, any equipment, anything that they need in Africa."
For the harbor seals and sea lions, painting money goes to the Marine Mammal Center and the Marine Mammal Care Center.Comment on this story
"They're both rescue and rehab facilities that rescue and rehabilitate seals and sea lions in California," Hanenburg said.
Hansen said the paintings are a fundraiser for the zoo, and they also allow it to contribute to animals in the wild.
"And a lot of people, if they have a favorite animal, or an animal that's really meaningful to them, it's a fun way both for them to have a souvenir of their time at the zoo and also still feel like they're helping those counterparts in the wild," Hansen said.