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Animals as artists: Sales of intriguing works by zoo’s inhabitants benefit the creative creatures

“Elephant Kiss” is one of many artworks created by ABQ BioPark animals. (Courtesy of New Mexico BioPark Society)

These artists come in all shapes and sizes: Some have trunks, some have antennae, and some are covered in fur or feathers.

The public can see and purchase masterpieces created by elephants, apes, insects, big cats, penguins, river otters and others at O’Niell’s in Nob Hill, 4310 Central NE, and online. There are 15 works available for purchase at the pub and more online at the New Mexico BioPark Society’s website, bioparksociety.org/main/animal-art. The art will be on display throughout July. The public can view the art hanging at O’Niell’s while adhering to social distancing guidelines and wearing masks.

“Painting is part of our enrichment and training program, and it just varies depending on the animal,” said Allyson Zahm, development director at the New Mexico BioPark Society. “For elephants, for example, our youngest elephant, Thorn, is learning to present his trunk to the zookeepers, and they can check it, they can do medical procedures, as long as he trusts them with his trunk. So that’s a big step. Part of the training process is allowing the zookeepers to touch his trunk so they just put paint on there and then he can stamp it onto a canvas to make what we call a ‘Thorn Kiss.’ And this is all building behavior he’s going to need once he gets really big and once the zookeepers will need to work with him on all kinds of issues throughout his life.”

The penguins created art without even realizing it.

“The penguins paint a lot, and this is just doing something they do every day, which is moving from the exhibit area to their back area,” Zahm said. “All the zookeepers do is they put down a puddle of paint, followed by some canvases, and the penguins are crossing over that paint, they get it all on their feet and then they walk across the canvass and leave a bunch of footprints. So it’s pretty cute, and it’s something that is a totally normal part of their day.”

The tiniest of critters also took part.

“It turns out to be another great sensory experience for the invertebrates, because what we do is kind of like with the penguins,” Zahm said. “We allow them to walk through paint and then walk onto a canvas so they might have six, eight or however many legs that are leaving these really cool marks on the canvas. We also let the maggots paint, and they’re kind of creeping and crawling through the paint, and it makes the most amazing-looking paintings.”

Jeff Trent, O’Niell’s operations manager, is also impressed with the creepy-crawly art.

“It’s really cool and abstract, and you see it and you see who made it, and there is a little bit of a ‘ew, bug,’ but to me it’s kind of like looking at a spiderweb where spiders are creepy but you look at what they make and it’s beautiful,” he said.

Alice the Elephant paints her masterpiece as her trainers assist by holding her paints and canvas. (Courtesy of the New Mexico BioPark Society)

Each of the animals has a different way of expressing itself creatively.

“The animal’s response just depends on the individual,” Zahm said. “So, like, with the apes, for example, some gorillas really love it, some orangutans really love it, and others don’t. We have some that don’t want to get their hands dirty, so it’s just not a fun thing for them. So it’s always a choice. If they don’t want to paint, it’s no big deal. We have some, too, that decide that painting on canvas is great but painting other things like the climbing structure in their back area is more fun. Painting their hands and their arms is more fun. And that’s just part of the enriching experience. It doesn’t result in a painting we can sell, but it means a great day for the animals.”

Proceeds from each painting go to support the animal artist. It allows the keepers to purchase enrichment, special tools and equipment that benefit the animals in a big way.

“You look at it and it’s not contrived in any shape or form,” Trent said. “This is as natural as it gets. We had this set up for a while, and then the pandemic had other plans, but we’d still like to do what we can to raise money for something that is important.”

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