Elephants don’t have fun painting

by Piter Kehoma Boll

ResearchBlogging.orgElephants are considered animals of high intelligence and social complexity, able to solve puzzles, use tools, show empathy and have self-awareness. Moreover, of course, they have an amazing memory.

When in captivity, elephants use to become stressed and bored, which leads many institutions that have them to develop programs of specific activities for enrichment in order to improve the well-being of these animals.

One of those common activities is painting, where the elephants paint on a canvas while holding a painting brush with their trunks. Despite this and other activities usually being considered good ways to reduce stress in elephants, there are no rigorous studies testing such assumptions.

An elephant painting at Melbourne Zoo. Photo from the original article by English et al., 2014.

An elephant painting at Melbourne Zoo. Photo from the original article by English et al., 2014.

A group of researchers from the University of New England, Australia, decided to test the effects of painting activities on elephants in captivity. They used four Asian elephants from the Melbourne Zoo which were used to the activity of painting.

Each morning, two of the four elephants were taken to the painting area, where one received food and the other painted. The painting sessions lasted less than five minutes.

The behavior of the elephants was monitored some hours before and some hours after the painting sessions and divided in three situations: (1) days in which the elephant painted, (2) days in which the elephant did not paint, but others did, and (3) days in which no elephant painted.

The final results showed that the painting sessions did not alter significantly the behavior of the elephants. There were no evidences of reduction in the stress levels of animals submitted to the painting sessions. Even during the painting, at least two of the elephants did not seem to be very interested in the activity, paying more attention to the keeper than to the canvas.

So we can conclude that painting canvas did not alter the humor of elephants and the activity has the sole purpose of public entertainment and fund raising by selling the canvas. The elephants remain as bored as they have always been in captivity.

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English, M.; Kaplan, G. & Rogers, L. 2014. Is painting by elephants in zoos as enriching as we are led to believe? PeerJ, 2 DOI: 10.7717/peerj.471

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