I’ve only ever bought one original piece of artwork in my life. Part of it is the financial reality that I don’t have the money to spend on artwork. Part of it is that art has never been that huge of an interest of mine. I couldn’t tell a Monet from a Manet (and spent most of my life thinking that they were the same person, just pronounced differently). I can recognize a few of the most famous paintings in the world – Mona Lisa, Starry Night – but that’s it. And modern, abstract art makes no sense to me at all…
Which is funny, considering my one piece of art – a small canvas framed on my apartment wall – is a swirl of reds and greens, smeared across white seemingly at random. So what makes this painting so special that I felt the need to buy it? Easy.
The artist was a rhinoceros. Specifically, she was an Indian one-horned rhino from the Cincinnati Zoo.
Animal artwork has become a huge niche interest in the zookeeper community. It isn’t a recent phenomena – 60 years ago, The Baltimore Zoo boasted of Betsy the painting chimpanzee, who’s artwork funded the construction of exhibits and the purchase of other animals (including, ironically, the chimp that ended up accidentally killing her). More recently, Phoenix Zoo had the late Ruby, an introverted elephant who preferred art to other elephants. After her keepers noticed her doodling in the dirt with sticks, they provided her with paints and canvases.
What has changed in recent years, however, is that painting is no longer limited to the most intelligent of zoo animals – the pachyderms and primates. Now everyone paints. Big cats and bears paint. Sloths and porcupines paint. Parrots and hornbills paint (though the former are just as likely to chew the paint brush to splinters). To my surprise and delight, I even saw a painting done by Madagascar hissing cockroaches, as well as one by a Vietnamese giant centipede. Go to a zookeeper workshop or conference, and there will usually be a silent auction fundraiser of sorts. At least half of the wares for sale are usually animal paintings…
Zookeepers and aquarists use animal painting sessions for a variety of things. For some animals, like Betsy and Ruby, painting provides a form of enrichment, giving them an opportunity to express themselves in a unique activity. For other animals, I suspect it is more enriching for the keepers than the kept, trying to come up with ways to produce a painting without having the animals destroy the canvases first. Some animals seem to enjoy painting, others need coaxing. I once produced a kangaroo painting by luring our big male red across a tray of paints, then onto the canvas (spread on the floor) by offering his favorite treats.
In cold, mercenary terms, paintings provide fundraising tools for the zoo – they can be sold in the gift shop, at auction, or gifted to special friends. They can be used in art shows or displayed in galleries to earn publicity for the zoo. Provided the animals are given the option to paint or not (or are at least not-unduly stressed – see below) and the materials and process are safe for all involved, I think it’s a fine idea.
Viewers and potential buyers contemplate a wall of zoo animal art, being auctioned off as a conservation fundraiser
Inspired by my rhino masterpiece, I’ve tried my own hand at animal art. Hanging opposite my rhino painting is one that I made – a serpentine form spiraling across white poster board, painted in warm pinks, yellows, and oranges. It was made by a woma python I cared for and was especially fond of, though God knows she was never fond of me. I don’t think she especially cared for the process – not angry or stressed, just indifferent as I slathered her belly with paint and let her slither across the canvas. She almost certainly didn’t realize what she was doing in the process. It doesn’t matter, though.
She’ll always be my favorite artist.