What are animal keepers to do when they have a porcupine that can hold a paintbrush, a raccoon, ring-tailed cacomistle and tortoise that have adorable foot prints, and lots of nontoxic paint? This conundrum has resulted in some of your favorite CuriOdyssey animals creating beautiful works of art! These paintings are then sold to help raise money for CuriOdyssey and other conservation-oriented nonprofits.
Our North American porcupine (Erithizon dorsatum), Peanut, “paints” with a brush on a canvas. She is reinforced for painting with her favorite food: Leafeater biscuits. Sometimes, Peanut will multitask by holding a biscuit in one hand and a brush in the other!
[photo: Kelli Rockafellow]
Here is one of Peanut’s painting sessions with her trainer. The brush is dipped in various paint colors and presented to Peanut. Peanut will then grasp the paintbrush and make a dramatic stroke of color on a canvas. In-between each brush stroke, you’ll see that Peanut is reinforced with a treat.
Peanut’s trainer has noticed that throughout Peanut’s creative process, she tends to shy away from painting with the colors purple and yellow. We are not sure why this is, but perhaps Peanut is just being a picky porcupine. The following picture is one of the few paintings Peanut created using those very colors.
Although Peanut paints with a brush, some of our animals are masters of finger-painting. Our North American raccoon (Procyon lotor), Merlin, prefers to be a little more “hands on” with his art.
Raccoons are known for their tactile abilities and can easily figure out how to open jars, turn knobs, untie knots and more. Knowing this, Merlin’s trainer uses painting as an activity that utilizes Merlin’s sense of touch. During painting sessions, Merlin is asked to place his hand onto a tray of paint, then onto a canvass, and then give a high five! The end result is a true expression of Merlin himself.
One of our shyer residents also paints with her paws. Our ring-tailed cacomistle (Bassariscus astutus), Amala, is a dainty artist and was featured in the San Mateo County Times this past December, which spotlighted her painting. Although she prefers to sleep during the day, Amala hardly passes up the chance to make a painting.
Here is a video of Amala painting with her trainer. With paws the size of a quarter, she cautiously steps onto a paint tray and then steps back onto a canvas.
Not only is Amala trained to create paintings, but she is also trained to present her paws for a gentle washing after each session. We like to think each painting is a masterpiece. Don’t you agree?
Painting isn’t just for mammals either. CuriOdyssey’s newest artist is a desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii/berlandieri) named Antiguo.
For now, Antiguo keeps it simple. He isn’t trained, but has paint applied to his feet as he roams across a canvas. Each footprint details his claws and scales, which is the best part about painting with a reptile!
Painting takes more than just creative juices; our animal keepers have established trusting relationships with these animals. This trust, combined with positive reinforcement training techniques allows keepers to create stimulating activities for our animals to participate in. Painting also keeps our animals engaged with their trainers.
Currently, Amala’s paintings are available at The CuriOdyssey Shop. Each original painting includes a photo of Amala painting and a brief description about her. Because CuriOdyssey belongs to the Bay Area Chapter of the American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK), our other animals’ paintings will soon be available for purchase at their next fundraising event, April 14th. Please check their events page for more information and let our animals know how much you appreciate their art on your next visit!
- post and photos by Rachael Tom, Animal Keeper