The artist applies bold colors in sweeping strokes across the canvas. She pauses for a snack or to change colors and makes excited, gurgling happy noises as she paints.
Christie is 29 year old African elephant and has been painting over five years as part of the enrichment activities offered to the elephants at Hogle Zoo. The activities are offered each day to keep them happy, active and engaged.
Led by three handlers, Jason Sorstokke, Melissa Farr and Deborah Miller the elephants at Hogle Zoo create works of art that are sold in the zoo gift shop to raise funds for International Elephant Foundation. The group is dedicated to elephant conservation and anti-poaching initiatives.
Christie begins a new painting by “blowing her nose.” Clearing the mucus from her trunk helps her hold the brush which is placed in a block of wood with a hole drilled in the middle. She takes the brush in her trunk and reaches it through the bars of the enclosure. It’s loaded with paint she which she applies to a canvas she can easily reach. After a few strokes the handlers reward Christie with pieces of fruit. Jason explains that getting a reward lets the elephants know they are doing a good. job.
Christie likes to paint in a side-to-side motion. Her daughter Zuri, five years old, prefers an up-and-down style. The third elephant, Dari, who is 55, doesn’t paint. Instead he blows paint onto wine glasses with a pvc tube. The glasses are used as Hogle Zoo donor gifts.
Besides the food incentives painting is its own reward for the elephants. The handlers can tell the elephants enjoy it. They paint once or twice a week and when they are done or get bored they simply stop.
Painting is just one of the enrichment activities offered to the elephants. They also have a swimming pool, bubble baths to play in and sometimes their food is delivered in puzzle feeders. The elephants have to figure out how to get their food, rather than just eating from a pile of hay on the ground, to simulate foraging in the wild.
The three handlers work with the three elephants and two rhinoceroses exclusively and so are able to devote a lot of time in taking care of them. They do 3 to 5 training sessions with the elephants per day. The handlers spend the whole day working with the animals and it is obviously a labor of love.
Christie’s and Zuri’s paintings can be found in the gift shop. Larger paints, around 16 x 14, are sold for $100 and the smaller paintings are $50.
Story by Connie Lewis