Can elephants really paint?

I found a link somewhere to a YouTube video of a young Asian elephant painting quite a good outline picture showing an elephant holding a flower in its trunk. It is impressive to see, but I found it hard to believe the implication: that this elephant was creating, rather than performing a learned task. As a former zookeeper and continuing student of animal intelligence I’m well aware of how various animal species can display amazing “intelligence” and problem-solving skills. And I’m equally aware of how we can misinterpret the actions of animals: we are blind to demonstrations of the real “intelligence” that animals use in their lives, but seize upon actions that remind us of ourselves.

We must keep in mind that we are the ones defining “intelligence”: it’s very specific to human concerns, sometimes even cultural distinctions and values. We don’t even count as intelligence the mental activity displayed, say, by a social hunter like a wolf or lioness who uses its knowledge of prey behavior, local topography, and the expected reactions of its hunting partners, to set up successful hunts of prey which may be much larger, faster, and part of a distracting herd. What we like to see, what we (naturally) respond to, are actions that mimic our own activities. To impress us, the mimicry must even be culturally appropriate. If I try to teach my dog to sing and he makes sounds like a Tuvan throat-singer I probably won’t think the venture a success, but if he sounds like Caruso or Elvis, that’s a different matter.

Also, animals can appear to perform complicated volitional acts which may be done simply by rote or mimicry. You may teach a dog to perform an operatic aria, or to mimic you when you dance, but the meaning invested in the act, and the amount of creativity or self-expression involved may not be at all what you (would like to) believe it is. A few animals have become famous for applying their acute powers of observation of human gesture, stance and expression; their masters guided them without being at all aware of having done so. Clever Hans, the horse who solved arithmetic problems and tapped out the answers with his hoof, is the pre-eminent example; when his guileless owner was blocked off from view of the horse, or did not know the answer himself, then Hans could hear the questions but was completely unable to tap out any correct responses. It appears that the horse read his owner’s body language, not that the man intentionally cued him. If the owner knew that 9 hoof-taps was the answer to “What is 3 times 3?” then his body relaxed after the ninth tap and the horse reacted to that.

So when we think we see an animal performing a complex activity (such as painting representational pictures), and one which has no apparent functional place in its normal life, we need to set aside our amazement and delight and look deeper.

It appears that the elephant video was made in an elephant camp in Thailand, perhaps at ChengMai where elephants have been trained in drawing and painting for over a decade, or at a newer camp called Mateman Elephant Camp. At Chengmai, the paintings are sold or exchanged for donations which help support the elephant center. The use of elephants in Asian logging is declining, and of course truly wild habitat where elephants won’t come into conflict with humans is scarce or nonexistent there. So the financial return from tourists is probably a positive thing, and painting may provide some stimulating activity for the elephants themselves although their greatest natural need is for more active pursuits such as walking many miles daily, uprooting bushes and trees, searching for water, learning and remembering their territory, and so on.

The photo below, from a 1995 issue of the Chengmai Mail, shows elephants in front of their largest painting to that time, a 12m mural made to raise money for a children’s fund.

elephantpaintingschool.jpg

But what is the elephant in the video actually doing? How much direction might the elephant be getting from his keeper or mahout? The video’s close focus on the animal did not offer any view of the mahout, who might have been giving verbal cues or making gestures.

Is the elephant painting a picture which it has composed and chosen or one which it is copying or has learned? A clue to this does appear in the video: near the end after the elephant has painted the red flower, the camera draws back and we can see an attendant removing a finished painting of very similar flowers from an easel near the elephant. To me, this indicates the likelihood of rote performance. The trainer has schooled the elephant: he hands the elephant a brush with red paint on it and says “Flower now,” while someone holds up a board with flower paintings on it, and the elephant responds. Even that act shows “intelligence,” and certainly trainability, but it would not demonstrate that the elephant is making the multiple choices, conscious and subconscious, made by a human artist.

There weren’t any videos I could find of elephants just learning to paint at ChengMai, but those in US zoos who’ve been given paintbrushes have consistently turned out paintings that can definitely be called “non-representational.”

The fullest account I found of the training of the elephants to paint was at the blog Stranger in a Strange Land in the March 14, 2008 post. It indicates pretty intensive training of the elephants.

“Teaching an elephant to paint is like teaching a young child,” says Tossapol Petcharattanakool, an art instructor at Maesa and professionally trained as an elementary school art teacher. “They have a sense of form and style and can learn positioning of lines. But while the elephant IS the painter, there is definitely communication, collaboration between mahout and elephant.”

In addition, at a site that sells the elephants’ paintings, I found indications that individual elephants repeat the same work.

There’s a photo of an “elephant with flowers” painting very much like the one made on the video, but with two flowers instead of one, and underneath,

Product Information

This is the last “Self Portrait” in stock – our allotment for May/June from Elephant Artist Hong.

Thanks to Anchalee Kalmapijit, director of the Mateman Elephant Camp and now director of an new Elephant Art enclave, we were able to obtain several of these Elephant Self Portraits made famous first by the documentary made by Blink TV with Vanda Harvey – an English Artist which was featured on the BBC and then the video posted on YouTube.

According to Anchalee, now is the rainy season in northern Thailand which makes it difficult for the Elephant Artists to paint in the open. Couple that with the decision by Anchalee and Hong’s handler Noi to “relax” and paint at a pace more set by Hong’s “mood”, and one can understand the scarcity of these paintings in the elephant art market. These paintings have sold as fast as we post them so order NOW! There is NO video with this painting.

PS Check out other sites that carry self portraits by Hong – they sell for a lot more than this!

That gives me enough evidence to conclude, until I learn differently, that the elephants are “merely” reproducing movements they have been taught. The degree of consistency is so great (in these few examples I’ve seen) that the trainers may even guide the animal’s trunk in the beginning, to teach it the desired lines and curves. Later the trainer gives verbal commands indicating which set of lines to draw. The elephants are not, say, looking over at another elephant and drawing lines with a brush to depict what they see.

The more we learn about natural animal behavior the richer and more complex we see that it is. If elephants or chimpanzees are unable to paint original representational pictures, that does not diminish them. The delight we feel when animals act like people is deeply selfish: “Look, it can hold a bat and hit a ball with it!” It’s imitating a human, that pinnacle of creation! Homage to humanity from the lesser beings.

Much more interesting are the things they can do that arise from their “essence,” their way of interacting with the world. But few of us ever get to observe at length any animals that are not living in a human-designed world; our pets, our livestock, our zoo animals, all act within the limits of a man-made environment. Even in that environment we can get glimpses of essence, of dog-ness or penguin-ness, if we pay attention and are resistant to self-serving interpretations.

9 thoughts on “Can elephants really paint?

  1. Always good to be reminded of our human mistake of thinking the value in something comes from that which is “just like us” It happens with people, too. Thanks for being a voice for valuing things and beings because they are “just like them”.

  2. Please do not support this practice. 60% of the elephants die learning to paint. They are severely beaten and as they need to be younger than 3 yrs old to learn, they find this distressing, painful and confusing. There are many other parks in Chiang Mai who don’t support this barbaric practice.

  3. Samantha,
    This is certainly believable, since whenever animal performance and money come together the pursuit of money usually rules. And I have seen descriptions online of people witnessing abusive treatment of elephants who give rides to tourists.

    Can you direct us to some specific accounts of abuse of elephants learning to paint? That would certainly help people who want to take action on it.

    Thanks.

  4. No, they can’t. In fact, there was a film that addressed this very issue and used Exotic World Gifts’ video on youtube as an example of a young elephant being forced to paint – his mahout carefully cropped out of view so one cannot see him jabbing a hook into the elephant’s ear to make him paint. It’s very well known in the world of Asian elephants conservation that elephant painting is a highly abusive and grotesque practice.

  5. Caroline,

    Thanks for the additional information. I thought the YouTube video had been cropped too and that it was a repetitive learned behavior. But the allegation of cruel training methods raises it to a whole different level. The trailer or excerpts of the film which you embedded, The Last Elephants in Thailand, makes me want to see the entire thing. I will try to get it on Netflix.

    For others who may be interested, the film’s website is http://www.thelastelephants.com/
    and a DVD is available there for $25.

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