Zoo Animals Show Their Artistic Sides

29 January, 2015

Can animals be artistic? Some experts think so. Painting and music are part of efforts to keep animals happy at the Smithsonian Institution's National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

Zookeepers there believe that animals need enrichment just like people do.

A sloth bear called Francois is one of the National Zoo's resident artists. He began his artistic career two years ago. Francois has a very unusual way to paint – a technique, some would say. He uses his breath to paint.

His zookeeper, Stacey Tabellario, says that although the technique may look strange, it is actually a very natural behavior for sloth bears.

"They have got big, big lungs, and they can suck things up and then in the same breath they can exhale a huge amount of air. So we took this natural behavior of the exhale. We stuff up one of those tubes full of paint and ask them to exhale through it. And that expels all of the paint onto the canvas, making these really cool paintings."

Animal artists come in all shapes and sizes at the Smithsonian's National Zoo. They use many kinds of techniques to create their works of art. Many use their paws or claws -- much like a human painter would use his or her hands. Apes use paintbrushes.

Stacey Tabellario says Francois seems to enjoy expressing himself through his art.

"When I set up the materials for painting activity, he comes and sits next to them and waits until we are ready to start painting. He does that every time. I also see where his eyes go, that he does see the paints come out of the tube and land on the canvas."

But not every animal wants to paint. Kenton Kerns cares for animals in the zoo's small-mammals building.

"Painting is absolutely a choice. So if it is very clear to us if an animal does not want to do a painting session. And if that's the case, we will stop right away. We will choose other animal(s) and give them an opportunity to do it."

Music is another part of the arts enrichment program. Ms. Tabellario heads the zoo's Enrichment and Training Committee. She says physically and mentally stimulating activities are an important part of the daily care of the animals. Trainers have a lot of tools, from tablet computers to small playthings.

Kenton Kerns says the program helps the animals and the zookeepers in many ways.

"Every interaction between keeper staff and their animals creates some sort of bond. And hopefully, especially enrichment sessions like this create a stronger bond."

The one-of-a-kind works of art created by the animals are popular with zoo visitors. Many are sold at the zoo's fund-raising events.

I'm Ashley Thompson.

This report was based on a story from VOA's June Soh. Ashley Thompson wrote it for VOA Learning English. The editor was George Grow.


Words in this Story

technique – n. a way of doing something by using special knowledge or skill

exhale – v. to breathe out

one-of-a-kind – adj. unique or special; rare.

fund-raising – n. an activity done to collect money for a political party, charity, school, etc.