Written by Tammy Buhrmester
Some scientists have heralded the capacity for art as a key feature that separates humans from other species, but the wide variety of animals at the Houston Zoo do not share the same opinion. They may be different by having paws, hooves, hands, scales, trunks, and flippers, but they still create amazing artwork. Their process is different from that of human artists, but they do it for the same reasons. Their motivations are to be creative and for rewards (theirs being food or other positive reinforcement.)
At the Houston Zoo, paintings have been produced by primates, elephants, birds, sea lions, raccoons, cats, spectacled bears, giraffes, tapirs and many more.
Why do they paint?
There are many reasons why we allow the primates to paint. The main reason that we paint with the primates is for enrichment. Enrichment is encouraging animal’s natural responses by stimulating natural instincts and behavior. Painting allows the animals to be creative, express their feelings and emotions, and it may be a form of stress relief. The painting process allows them to have all their senses involved: they can see the painting, touch the paint, smell the paint, hear the brush strokes or finger strokes against the canvas, and taste the paint. (Of course, we use non-toxic paint so that they are not harmed if they eat some of it.)
How do they paint?
The primates at the Houston Zoo have always shown a great deal of creativity, as is typical of intelligent beings. They are allowed to use many forms of painting tools: their hands, lips, foam brushes, cardboard tubes, special man-made 3 foot paintbrushes, assorted browse and whatever medium they decide to add to their process (water, dirt, hay, and grass.)
Painting is done through training, but animals paint only when they are willing to participate. Keepers usually apply paint to the canvas in small dots first. To start the training we initially bridged (a cue to tell them that they did exactly what you want them to do) and then rewarded the animal for touching their hand, finger or brush to the paint on the canvas. All animals receive a small reward for touching the paint on the canvas. Rewards consist of small pieces of their diet (figs, currants, grapes, worms, juice, or yogurt, depending on the animal.) The painting activity itself is so self-rewarding that most of them forget to stop to get their reward until the painting is finished.
What do they paint?
Canvas is not the only thing that the primates paint on to make art. They also paint on ostrich eggs, glass Christmas ornaments, fabric bags, photo frames, clothing, rocks, wine glasses and much more.
What happens to the paintings?
The primates produce beautiful paintings and we use them to raise funds for the conservation of their species in the wild. The primate department raises money through the sale of the paintings to help chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas, gibbons, black howler monkeys, turtles, elephants, binturongs, babirusa and clouded leopard species.
Next time you are walking through the Wortham World of Primates, or the Great Ape Gallery in the African Forest and see some bright pink, blue, green, or yellow on the primates or on the walls, you know that they have been expressing themselves through art!