DO ELEPHANTS REALLY PAINT?

Yesterday my friend Marc forwarded a link of an elephant painting a picture at a tourist camp in Thailand. Perhaps you’ve seen it floating around YouTube?

Marc asked me what I thought and I told him, but instead of just sharing it with him, I figured more may want to know whether elephants really paint. Below is my take on the issue:

From what I’ve heard from such elephant experts as Soraida Salwala (founder of the Friends of the Asian Elephant Hospital), Lek Chailert (founder of the Elephant Nature Park), Pat Derby (founder of Performing Animals Welfare Society) and Don Tayloe (director of “The Last Elephants in Thailand”), elephant paintings, such as the one pictured below, are a learned trick that elephants at tourist camps are forced to learn by their owners/handlers, similar to how elephants in circuses are trained/beaten (depending upon your take on their methods) until they learn how to walk on their hind legs, raise a human above their head, etc. Some elephants take to painting more “naturally”, others are beaten or have a paint brush taped to their trunk in order to learn how to hold the paint brush “correctly”. Then, what you can’t see in the video is, the handler will then tap, push or guide the elephant’s trunk to create the “correct” picture.

While at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in August 2009, I filmed the elephant painting act for my documentary, “The Eyes of Thailand“, and I have footage of the handler tapping on the elephant’s trunk out of the view of most of the audience of Thai school children. Also, one elephant chose pink instead of green to paint the leaves on the tree and the handler actually hit the elephant because that was “wrong”.

With such strict training and protocol for what’s “right” and “wrong”, I have a hard time calling these elephant paintings “art”. However, I do believe that elephants are intelligent, emotional and creative beings that like to express themselves. For this reason, some zoos in the U.S. (such as the Milwaukee Zoo referenced in a May 7, 2008 article in the L.A. Times) give elephants easels and paint brushes to paint abstractly on their own. But, this is mainly as a distraction from boredom the elephants experience in captivity within the zoos and it only works occasionally. Given their own agency, I do not think any elephant in the wild would choose to paint in nature–they would be too busy enjoying life as an elephant!

You can learn more about elephant painting by viewing the trailer for Don Tayloe’s “The Last Elephants in Thailand” here.

Check out past blogs about elephant painting here.

-Windy Borman

Director/Producer, The Eyes of Thailand

Tags: animal abuse, animal rights, animal welfare, asian elephant, asian elephant hospital, Circus, documentary, Don Tayloe, Elephant Nature Park, elephant painting, endangered, Eyes of Thailand, Friends of the Asian Elephants, L.A. Times, Milwaukee Zoo, Pat Derby, PAWS, Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, Soraida Salwala, Thai Elephant Cons, Windy Borman

This entry was posted on Monday, May 17th, 2010 at 2:04 pm and is filed under Notes from the Director. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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May 17, 2010
[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by The Eyes of Thailand and Windy Borman, DVA Productions. DVA Productions said: Do Elephants Really Paint? – Experts agree that elephant painting is a learned trick that tourist camps teach them,… http://ow.ly/17paMT […]

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Do Elephants Really Paint?! by Windy Borman of The Eyes of Thailand | From Patty’s Perch
November 27, 2012
[…] question of Do Elephants Really Paint? has & continues to be in debate. What is not debatable is that elephants do not paint in […]

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D.V.A. PRODUCTIONS in association with INDIEWOOD PICTURES presents ‘THE EYES OF THAILAND’
Narrated by ASHLEY JUDD Editor GARY SCHILLINGER Composer STEVE HORNER
Written by TIM O’BRIEN Associate Producers JESSICA DELINE SEEN ROBINSON JODY STICKNEY
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