Will paint for food or fun: Knoxville Zoo animals go wild when they express creativity
By Amy McRary (Contact)
Sunday, September 21, 2008
Four meerkats race across a large rectangle of white paper, spreading purple and black paint with their paws, tails, tummies and chins. The Knoxville Zoo animals work for food, creating art as they munch on mealworms spread over their canvas.
These fast-acting artists dash into their exhibit's underground tunnels at any odd noise. But mealworms are a powerful meerkat inspiration. Hunting the treats keep the squirrel-sized meerkats dancing in paint and on paper.
The result - meerkat original artwork.
Art's gone wild at the zoo where animals from penguins to pachyderms paint. It's one of the enrichment activities zookeepers offer animals to keep them mentally stimulated and physically active. The park's paintbrush-waving African elephants began the art; the late elephant Mamie in 1997 was the first pachyderm painter. Today a colony of furry and featured artists immerse themselves in the creative process as they waddle, slither, walk and roll through paint and over paper.
African penguin Jello needs only attention from Tammy Walling, assistant curator of birds, to be inspired. Walling spreads art paper on the floor of the off-exhibit penguin area. Next to the paper she squeezes black and later maroon paint on an overturned cafeteria tray. She puts Jello on the tray.
With a few words of encouragement from her keeper, the 17-year-old bird waddles from tray to paper. The result is penguin footprint art and praise from Walling that makes Jello preen.
"That is actually very pretty," Walling says.
Jello was the first zoo bird to take up art; she's been painting several years. Sometimes she walks off the paper and leaves art on the washable concrete floor.
"There's really no art to it," Walling says. "I just had to get her to walk through it (the paint). She doesn't care about the painting but she likes the interaction with people."
The animals' artwork isn't just admired by keepers. Paintings are sold in an annual sale; money goes to the enrichment program to buy food treats, heavy-duty balls and supplies. Last year's sale raised $4,000.
This year the zoo will hold its first evening "Art Gone Wild" gala and sale 6-8:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 26. Admission is $20 for zoo members, $25 nonmembers; attendees must be 21 or older. More than 100 pieces of art by creatures ranging from otters to snakes to cheetahs will be sold. Prices range from $30 for a matted 8-by-10 to $130 for a framed, matted 24-by-28-inch creation.
Animal abstract is the prevailing style. Paw prints, beak marks or tail swipes are seen in swirls of paint. The cheetahs' furry paw pads leave brush-like impressions. Guinea hogs and Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs customize canvasses with snotty snout prints. A few species - chimpanzeees, gorillas and elephants - get brushes to paint with. Most of the chimps prefer to finger paint and employ brushes only as utensils for tasting the non-toxic paint.
The elephants are the park's most proficient and famous artists. They paint at least weekly; their work is the only animal art sold in the zoo gift shop and on its Web site. Elephant keepers pick the colors by dipping brushes into paint jars. The elephants are trained to take the brush from a keeper, grasp it in their trunks and swipe at paper held in front of them by keepers.
Female elephant Edie paints best with easy strokes and little dots. "Edie thinks about it," says lead elephant keeper Todd Naelitz. The bull elephant Tonka can create beautiful work if he feels like it. Last week an uninterested Tonka rolled a brush loaded with blue paint in his trunk before returning it, bent and slobbery, to his keepers.
Female pachyderm Jana is as likely to paint keeper Matt Shaughnessy holding the art paper before her as she is the paper. Though Naelitz orders Jana to be "easy, easy" with her strokes, the art expresses her personality. "Everything with her is quick and direct," says Naelitz.
Success varies by species and animals. Keepers Elisabeth Zafiris and Nikki Edwards offer peanuts to Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs Janet and Sue as they lead the animals through paint and on paper. More paint ends up on the pigs' snouts than their canvas. Kids Cove raccoon Charlie Wags "would paint all day," but raccoon Stevie the Beef doesn't like paint on his paws, says keeper Cynthia Maples.
And penguin Iggy apparently doesn't have an artistic feather on her body. "She fell in the paint," says Walling.
White tiger Kali immerses herself in her art. Since the big cat loves smells, keepers spray perfume on paper they sprinkle with tempera. Kali rolls on the paper, smudging her fur with paint and making art. Art by Kali, the meerkats and talking African Grey Parrot Einstein are part of the upcoming book "Fur In My Paint."
Yet Einstein, the zoo's bird show diva, doesn't much like to paint. An Einstein original is rarer than other creature art. "She's OK with it but not really interested," says Jennifer Manrod, the zoo curator of conservation science. "We try painting. If the animal doesn't like it, we don't do it."
When art is over and the mealworms are gone, meerkats clean off paint much like a cat would. "They look at their paws and they can see the color," says David Backus, the zoo's Grasslands Africa lead keeper. "But they don't like one color over another. The mealworms are their main motivation.
"But if they didn't like it they wouldn't do it."
Amy McRary may be reached at 865-342-6437.