The Rama Exhibition

Painting with Rama

Rama, the Painting Elephant of The Oregon ZooThis is an article written by Jeb Barsh, Rama’s keeper at the Oregon Zoo. He answered the question, often posed to him, “Why Paint with an Elephant?”

I like this question. It gets asked a lot. We have been in the elephant painting business for 6 years. In that time I’ve had the opportunity to develop quite a sound philosophy of enrichment, and helped Rama, our painter, make some pretty good paintings along the way.

For me, elephants need to succeed and structuring serial behaviors with a goal such as a painting, gives them opportunities for success, and more importantly focused interaction with those who care for them daily.

Purists let me know how they feel.

  • “This is not natural behavior.”
  • “Do elephants enjoy painting?”
  • “Can they see color?”
  • “Aren’t you having as much fun as Rama?”

Well, I enjoy every point of view offered me, and here I will answer as best I can:

“Why paint with an elephant?” At the Oregon Zoo elephant barn, we house bulls. Three are mature, and one is a juvenile, and they are generally housed alone. They are as different in nature as you and I might be.

The toughest challenge we face with them comes in the area of environmental engagement. Having spent a lifetime in captivity may predispose the bulls to exhibit stereotypical behaviorals.

It seems only fair to introduce our herd to many varied activities; some are naturalized behavior patterns while others are not. Painting is certainly not a natural behavior for an elephant, though some elephants are intrigued by their finger paintings or designs made with the distal tip of their amazing trunk.

The fact is, if left alone with any painting, most elephants would eat the whole thing, frame and all! Art holds no function for an elephant, so why make art with one? Well, the short answer would be because you can. The processes around painting are linked behaviors, each stimulus controlled adds to the animal’s overall understanding. That builds bonds and reduces stress, which also can reduce stereotypical behavior. This is one good reason for painting with an elephant – training is a wonderfully enriching activity for the elephant. The nuances and inherent freedom of creation are very good for any creature, including an elephant.

As we work toward the goal, we impact more than just the canvas. I have come to think of painting sessions as art therapy. With the right animal, it gives a place to shine. I have seen Rama shine over and over. He has produced some 400 painting and earned over $100,000 for our efforts, fueling our mission to inspire the public to care about wildlife.

Tens of thousands of visitors are amazed to see just how intricate our relationships can be, how far an elephant can interrelate, and the physical grace of this intelligent species.

Portland is an elephant crazy town. Rama’s father Packy put Portland on the map for breeding elephants 47 years ago and the public loves our herd!

People in Portland also have a thing for art. Everybody here is a critic or an artist or both. From the very start each time we were asked to make a fundraising painting for a zoo function, the goal was to produce the finest finished product we could.

We also intended that the painting would help people understand the capability of the elephant and further, to tell everyone they know about these remarkable capabilities.

Rama’s paintings are titled with names such as Extinction Looms or Migration Hazard to get people thinking about the deeper issues. It has been powerful watching folks link up to what Rama was doing. His easy going demeanor, his total engagement, and his total cooperation are even inspiring for me, and I have worked with elephants a long time! So I get it! The public have taken to Rama in a big way.

Rama paints weekly, and the crowds know him, and want to see him work. As simple as the steps are, seeing them all aimed at a canvas is impressive. The finished product gives viewers the thought. “Does he know what he’s doing”?

I tell them, he knows how to do what he’s doing, but that’s all I can say. Rama thoughts are unknown, but clearly he seems to enjoy the process. We buy the best canvas, paint and brushes for him, insisting on the highest quality. We utilize the canvas as the target space, and we conceive ways to have our elephant impact that space. Rama blows tempera paint from his beak, (you can load it with a needleless syringe or he draws it into his trunk from a bucket) creating what Portland art critic D. K. Row coined as Abstract Eruptionism.

Rama also finger paints, scrapes with his trunk, drips upon, touches with his foot, what ever we can do to have him interact with the space. Also we have honed an ever-evolving understanding of what colors and technique work best for what the people want and it sells.

It may be silly to assign such a human trait as artist to an elephant. But, there you go. It has been the perfect marriage for Portland, connecting their beloved elephants and their innate interest for art (and the artist) with the society. Voila!

If Rama did not seem so thoroughly engaged and look so absolutely delighted while producing paintings, we’d do something else. It’s not like he couldn’t walk away, he can. His stereotypical behaviors are never present during these sessions. His engagement is our main objective and beyond that we make the most out of the gifts Rama and painting have provided to awaken people to the plight of wildlife and the Earth.

I hope I have made you curious enough to check further into Rama the painter, and maybe even inspire you to wonder if perhaps one of your elephants, or naked mole rats, or any animal under your care might be a vehicle of creative expression for both of you!”

Please check out Rama’s art Gallery at the Oregon Zoo website listed on the links page. 


This entry was published on May 18, 2012 at 5:44 am and is filed under Building The Rama Exhibition. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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