These animals use different methods to create unique pieces of art with the assistance of their keepers. Some go the traditional route and use a paintbrush. Others use their paws or feet and,in some cases,their noses. Their studio isn’t the nearest gallery,but rather their pens at the National Zoo.
Pandas,tigers,anteaters,kiwis and naked mole-rats are just a few of the 20 species that are involved with painting at the zoo.
“Enrichment’s really a critical part of animal care,” Heidi Hellmuth,the zoo’s curator of enrichment and training,said. “It’s just as important as veterinary care,nutrition,cleaning,maintenance.”
Hellmuth said enrichment gives the animals an opportunity to have some choice and control over their environment by using natural behaviors. She said enrichment works “to basically to keep their minds and their bodies engaged so that they’re psychologically and physically healthy.”
Hellmuth said painting involves four out of the six categories of enrichment,including sensory,objects,cognitive and social.
“So it gives them a lot of different forms of enrichment all in one activity,” she said.
Although painting is not new to the zoo,it has expanded in the last few years to more animals. In the past,painting was limited mainly to elephants,orangutans,apes and gorillas.
Giant pandas Tian Tian and Mei Xiang recently joined the growing group of animal artists.
In 2000,the keepers tried painting with the pandas by asking them to put their paws in paint and then putting them on a canvas,but they didn’t seem interested. About six months ago,the keepers revisited painting with the pandas using a different method,which involves using a paintbrush attached to a PVC tube lashed to a fence.
Animal keeper Nicole MacCorkle said Tian Tian took to this method right way,holding the PVC tube just as he would hold a stalk of bamboo. Mei Xiang was less interested at first,but is gaining more interest.
Animal keeper Kenton Kerns works with naked mole-rats. The pink-skinned mole-rats walk on a sheet of paper or canvas with paint on it.
“We’ve found this pretty enriching,” he said. “They definitely have a reaction to it.”
The artwork that the animals produce varies. A painting done by a panda contains what looks more like brush strokes on a canvas because they use a paintbrush,while a painting by a kiwi consists of shorter,sharper marks because the flightless birds are dipped in paint,then they walk on a canvas.
Some may question whether this is art.
Hellmuth said she believes it is because the animals are using a creative side.
“We tap into a natural behavior of the animals for the painting,” she said. “We don’t try to ask them to do something that’s really unnatural. And so I think it is letting them express themselves with their own natural locomotion,their own natural body parts,their own natural behaviors. just using the medium of paint instead of dirt or something that they might in the wild.”
The artwork will be on sale in the spring at the National Capital Chapter of the American Association of Zoo Keepers Art Show.
Volunteers can help by donating non-toxic,water-based paint; art paper; canvases and paint brushes. They can also choose items from the Animal Enrichment Wish List.
Reach reporter Jessica Sabbah [email protected] or 202-408-2735. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.