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Creature Creations

Animals need food, water, shelter—and paint? Well, yes. Animal art is an increasingly important enrichment tool.

By Allie Killam

Visitors to the Zoo whispered and wondered. They were watching the popular young lions, born in 2010. And something seemed odd: The cats were wearing different colors!

(Pamela Baker-Masson/NZP)

One had a patch of red. Was it blood? People wondered nervously. No, it was too bright for that. Some colors were obviously not natural: swaths of blue, dabs of green. It looked almost as if the colorful cats had run amok in a paint store. But how could that have happened?

It hadn’t, of course. Yet the lions were indeed sporting coats of paint. That’s because earlier in the day, they’d had their first try at an increasingly popular enrichment activity—painting.

The Art of Enrichment

Like many zoos nationwide, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo offers animals the opportunity to dip their paws, claws, and more in nontoxic, washable paint. Painting enriches animals’ lives in several ways, explains Heidi Hellmuth, who recently served as the Zoo’s curator for enrichment. It provides social interaction with a keeper as well as cognitive training from learning a new activity. Paint also engages the senses, as animals see it, smell it, and feel it. The experience is particularly tactile for animals, such as elephants, that wield a brush.

Zoo staff try to structure animal art lessons to draw as much as possible on natural behavior. Sloth bears, for instance, feed by blowing away dirt on the forest floor and sucking up termites. So keepers gave the bears an oversized straw-like apparatus that they could use to blow paint onto the canvas. The ursine artists often pause, admire their work, and continue painting while the other bears sit and watch.

Because the Zoo has more than 400 different species, there are literally hundreds of different ways to create a painting. Each keeper experiences trial and error when working with the animals.

After several years of working in the Small Mammal House, keeper Kenton Kerns has gotten to know its residents very well. “Because they’re regularly held by keepers, it was easy to introduce the critters to paint. And later clean them off,” he says. Animals naturally groom and keep themselves clean, so the paint is usually gone by the next day. Just in case, however, keepers will leave notes to each other, explaining who painted and with what colors. “We want to make sure a naked mole-rat hasn’t turned green overnight,” says Kerns with a laugh.

Courtney Janney, a keeper on Asia Trail, approaches painting as a training procedure. “You have to be able to clean them off afterwards, so we start with getting them comfortable around the hose,” she explains. The next step is to be patient and wait. “You have to let them explore on their own terms. Paint is squishy, and it smells. They have to decide there’s no threat first.”

It didn’t take too long for Janney to train the cats on Asia Trail. She’s not sure if the animals were spurred by the desire to display their artistic talents or to earn treats. “Animals can choose whether or not they want to participate. They all do, willingly, so they’re enjoying it on some level,” she says.

Some animal artists really get into it. When Mei Xiang, the Zoo’s female giant panda, first painted, she loved the smell so much, she proceeded to smear paint all over her face. The keepers’ jaws dropped. What would the public think when they saw a tie-dyed panda? Turns out visitors took it in stride.

Claws and Macaws

Like her artistic offspring, the lioness Shera loves to paint. She truly puts herself into her work: Keeper Kristen Clark has a collection of paintings whose numerous claw marks testify to the artist’s desire to keep her masterpieces. Shera’s artistic inclinations are not shared by her fellow lioness, Naba. She’s “too cool for painting,” says Clark with a smile.

Lion painting requires a lot of brainstorming and cooperation among animal caretakers. “It’s a two-person job,” says Clark. “Someone has to watch the front end of the cat, where the teeth and claws are.” Now and then, the other person asks the lion to stand on its hind legs and then replaces the cat’s creation with a fresh piece of paper. The keepers do all this through slots in the sturdy mesh that separates them from the painterly predators.

(Pamela Baker-Masson/NZP)

Because the keepers have such close relationships with their charges, they can easily detect any indication of stress. Painting is never unsupervised. So when Clark first attempted painting with the lion cubs and some reacted by hissing and swatting at the unfamiliar items, keepers quickly stopped the activity to prevent any anxiety.

“It’s surprising how scary a white floating thing is,” says Kerns, talking of paper and canvas. Before Hilary Colton, a Bird House keeper, tried to paint with the green-winged macaw named Mac, she first got him used to having the canvas nearby. Mac was aware of the new object, but unafraid, says Colton. During the next training session, the keepers tried a few different brushes, but Mac didn’t care for holding sticks in his beak.

So Colton got creative. She put peanut butter (a treat) inside a paper towel roll. Then she attached leaves that had been dipped in paint. She presented this innovative “brush” to Mac, and he took it. Indeed, he liked the new sensation so much that he refused to relinquish the brush when it was time to add more paint to the leaves!

With time and practice, Mac became an adept artist. This provided more than just cognitive enrichment. “The face-to-face time helps create a bond between keeper and animal,” explains Colton.

Some of Mac’s Bird House neighbors take a more mercenary approach to their artistic endeavors. Kiwis, keeper Kathy Brader jokes, “will work for food!” The flightless New Zealand birds will run around, spreading paint with their feet, if they’re plied with enough treats.

Creative Challenges

Unlike the kiwis, some animals don’t enjoy wet paint. Kibibi, the Zoo’s youngest gorilla, stands out in this regard. Fortunately, apes have the option of wielding a brush with their hands.

Some orangutans, on the other hand, like painting themselves and the walls, notes keeper Becky Malinsky. “Some keepers wear painting-specific sweatshirts, because the expressive apes can be messy,” she says. “Anytime I hold a canvas, they come right over. They’ll pick and choose their own paint colors as well.” Orangutans enjoy painting so much, they’ll tussle with one another over who gets to do it. There’s also the minor detail that the primates sometimes try to eat the paint. Keepers prevent this by offering the animals grapes instead.

Amphibians present a different issue: Their delicate skin is far too sensitive to come into contact with paint. Keepers got around this obstacle by creating “paint” of their own. They took the powdered algae mixture that the Zoo’s frogs eat and mixed it with water to create a paint-like substance—organic and edible. The critters hopped happily, creating artwork of tiny frog footprints.

The lizards were very intrigued by their artistic opportunities. “Some of the lizards were like, ‘What’s that?’” reports Watkins. The Komodo dragon, a large and very intelligent lizard, enjoys the activity. “Painting seemed to pique his curiosity,” says Watkins. “His tongue was flicking.” The lizard was never aggressive, but he did seem to find the new sensations enriching.

“You really have to be in tune with the animal,” explains Kerns. He learned this the hard way. On one occasion, he was painting with a greater Madagascar hedgehog tenrec that he knew was approaching torpor (a state similar to hibernation). He didn’t realize quite how close the critter was until it passed out on the canvas!

Pictures at an Exhibition

With all this artistic activity, the Zoo has amassed quite a collection of critter creations. The animals’ artistry caught the eye of John Thomann, an Asia Trail interpreter. He discussed the subject with his colleagues at Gensler, an architectural firm. They were enthusiastic, and the company provided funding for many of the art supplies now used at the Zoo.

Gensler also invited the National Capital chapter of the American Association of Zoo Keepers (NCAAZK) to mount an animal art show at the firm’s D.C. office. Kerns,the NCAAZK president, reached out to his fellow chapter members, and a new wave of painting began. Each unit, from thegiant pandas to the invertebrates, eagerly participated. Obliging colleagues at the Pittsburgh Zoo even sent artwork by our sea lions, lodged there until their new home on American Trail is completed.

Lucky Zoo visitors witnessed part of the preparation for the show: the prairie dogs’ first painting session. “It was nice to see the public’s reaction,” says Clark. “They thought it was just the coolest thing.” Visitors were particularly amused when some of the plump rodents sat down in the paint. “It was funny to see these little purple and blue butts going down the holes,” Clark recalls.

(Meghan Murphy/NZP)

“What the keepers do is nothing short of amazing,” says Hellmuth. Kerns agrees: “There are some great results when we really challenge ourselves. It’s amazing the amount of variety we have.” That variety, nearly 100 examples of it, is now dazzling Gensler’s employees and clients. (The show, unfortunately, is not open to the general public. NCAAZK hopes to organize a more public show in the future.) Any funds raised by sale of the artwork will support keeper training and purchase painting supplies.

The show has a more intangible goal as well—raising awareness. After all, these striking, colorful images are conversation pieces. “The painting is a hook,” explains Hellmuth. “If people have never heard of an elegant crested-tinamou, they might be more interested in the bird and take the time to learn.” They may even, Hellmuth hopes, get involved in the global challenge of conserving our natural world.

The Human Factor

Besides enriching animals’ lives, their artistic endeavors also enliven the work of Zoo staff. “I think the keepers get the biggest kick out of it,” says Clark. Invertebrates keeper Mike Henley agrees: “How many people can come home and say, ‘I had a bear paint today’?”

Painting doesn’t always go as planned, of course, and it isn’t always easy. Still, NCAAZK members eagerly persist. Animal art, as Clark puts it, is “another way people can feel a particular connection to the animal or species.”Fostering that connection is, after all, a paramount goal for the Zoo and its staff.

The best part, Kerns says, is that “the animals will never not need enrichment.” So let the painting continue!

- ALLIE KILLAM was a editorial intern for Smithsonian Zoogoer.