Zoo Animals Show Their Artistic Sides

January 23,2015

The pursuit of happiness is so important, America's founding fathers put it in the Declaration of Independence. Any zookeeper will tell you animals need enrichment, just like humans do.

So painting and music are part of the Smithsonian National Zoo's program to keep the animals happy.

Francois began his artistic career two years ago. The sloth bear has a unique way to paint, using his breath. His keeper, Stacey Tabellario, said that although it might look odd, it's actually a very natural behavior.

Sloth bears "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," she said. "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 a variety of techniques to create masterpieces with nontoxic, water-based paint. Many use their paws or claws. Apes will use paintbrushes.

But like humans, not every animal wants to paint, said small-mammals keeper Kenton Kerns.

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

Tabellario said 24-year-old Francois seems to enjoy expressing his inner artist.

“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," she said. "I also see where his eyes go, that he does see the paints come out of the tube and land on the canvas. ”

Music is also part of the arts enrichment program. Tabellario, who is the zoo's Enrichment and Training Committee chair, says physically and mentally stimulating activities are an integral part of the daily care. Trainiers have a lot of tools — everything from tablet computers to toys in the enclosures.

The program offers other benefits as well, Kerns said.

“Every interaction between keeper staff and their animals creates some sort of bond," he said. "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 and are sold at the zoo’s fundraising events.