Animal Inventory Blog

Keeping track of animals in popular culture.

Elephant Paints Portrait of Elephant

Posted by lisagbrown on April 3, 2008

I encourage you to watch the above video of an elephant painting a portrait of an elephant. It is, quite simply, astonishing.

While I am always one to give animals the benefit of their own intelligence, it’s hard not to wonder whether the video is a genuine representation of the elephant’s capabilities. Was this a creation the elephant conceived? Was the video somehow manipulated? Or is this footage of an elaborately trained animal?

This video was shared among a group of human-animal studies scholars with whom I am well-acquainted, and discussed over email. These emails revealed reactions that are diverse, thoughtful and utterly compelling. After reading the discussion that trickled into my inbox over a period of a couple days, I realized that when viewed as a whole, the emails represent a wonderful range of perspectives on animals and our relationships with them — a cohesive and unique story about what one 8 minute video can evoke. I am honored to share some snippets of our conversation. Some language has been changed for clarity and anonymity:

  • The only thing I can think of is that the handlers somehow trained the elephant to paint this exact portrait — not quite the artistic, creative or intellectual achievement that it at first appears, but a tremendous achievement regardless.
  • Quite possibly, it is BOTH what is appears to be AND a manipulation.
  • My guess is that it is wholly contrived.
  • Assuming that there isn’t some horrific abuse that is at the bottom of this, then this video is one way that people can easily discern elephants’ extraordinary qualities
  • I am concerned about the issue of harsh training.
  • I wonder if some simply can’t believe any nonhuman can do what appears to be going on here.
  • I haven’t found any really effective means of communicating nonhumans’ extraordinary richness of life, family, perception, etc. This video offers possibilities of understanding for humans in a way that I haven’t yet been able to realize with mere words and static pictures.
  • They are special, even if they do NOT do this. But I wonder how this kind of portrayal of elephants can help push our society to see that any living being that is this complicated should never be held in captivity.
  • What makes anyone think that the painting created by the elephant in any way represents how elephants see other elephants? (or themselves?) Visual information is processed very differently by different critters — lines, contrasts, movements, textures, depths, are all emphasized differently in different brains. In my opinion, that was a picture conceived by a human for other humans. The elephant was merely a tool for that purpose.
  • Watching this, I felt incredibly sad and disappointed. Sad that this elephant is in captivity, being praised for another species’ accomplishments, instead of her own. Disappointed that with all of the amazing abilities that human beings have, we continue to value actions, thoughts, individuals, and groups that are like us, and often fail to be amazed, educated, and inspired by others’ differences.
  • I think of the image of the elephant painting a picture and imagine this against an image of a circus elephant, balanced on one giant foot on a small stool, while holding a ball at the tip of its trunk. It makes me wonder, is this the same sort of spectacle? Does it evoke the same sorts of responses from the audience?
  • This may be a misguided or even an egregiously anthropomorphic way of appreciating an elephant, and this does not even account for the possibility of abuse of which the audience may be totally unaware. I guess I want to have some hope that when people see an image like this, as naive as we may be about the morality of it, they feel love and a desire to understand rather than the lure of domination.
  • The elements in the painting suggest a human designer–the perfect side-profile, the outline, and the sole non-outline elements of eye, ear, and lines delineating the overlap of legs. I can’t see how/why elephants would ever have developed a visual vocabulary so identical to ours, in which facial features and overlaps happen to be very important.
  • I have no problem believing that an elephant would have an aesthetic sense.
  • Watching this elephant return to thicken previously-painted lines, I attributed a sense of consistency, form, and pattern to her that I could relate to, and see no reason why humans would have developed special abilities in these areas.
  • I am acquainted with Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain techniques –which involves learning to see images as lines, forms, and angles rather than symbols–and can easily imagine an elephant having similar such abilities to see, understand, and replicate. My guess is therefore this: the elephant is not aware of the meaning of the symbols he/she is painting, but has learned–perhaps with pleasure and satisfaction–to perceive and copy the lines, forms, and angles of a human-designed drawing.
  • The elephants are exactly as good as their “mahouds” (human handlers) who have a hand on them somewhere under their ear and guide every stroke.
  • I know from experience that dolphins and sea lions enjoy painting (they can become quite vocal when asked to paint) Some even carefully attend to what they paint: they back away from the paper and look at it, and typically choose to concentrate most of the paint in the same area of the paper, as opposed to covering all of the white space. Other dolphins or sea lions routinely cover the entire paper with paint, while others seem to prefer either the center or edges of the paper. They did not, however, draw anything that appeared to be a direct representation or depiction of a “real-world” object. I do believe that a talented trainer working with a dolphin who enjoys learning new behaviors or particularly enjoys the painting behavior could “teach” the dolphin to paint a specific object.
  • My instinct is that the painting itself is real, but that it is more indicative of the elephant’s impressive capacity for learning than of artistic creativity/self-portraiture (at least as related to conventions in human-created art).
  • Even if the elephant was trained to create this picture, this does not necessarily indicate cruelty or abuse. Obviously there are ethical issues that need to be acknowledged: Is there ever a reason to keep an elephant in captivity? Should we train elephants to engage in activities for our enjoyment? Should we ask elephants to produce “art” for our sake, representing objects as we see them, rather than for their own sake? Would seeing this video and, at the very least, recognizing elephants’ intelligence influence people to fight against captivity and exploitation? Or might seeing this video just further demonstrate to others how we can use elephants and other sapient beings for our own enjoyment and entertainment?

Author’s note: Please view and add to the conversation that has continued in the comments section of this entry.

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4 Responses to “Elephant Paints Portrait of Elephant”

  1. Tim said

    “The only thing I can think of is that the handlers somehow trained the elephant to paint this exact portrait”

    The flower at the end makes me think so.

  2. “Wholly contrived” it is very likely not. Invented by the elephant is equally unlikely — it is probably a human-originated line drawing, and the elephant has been trained to reproduce it, probably after months or years of effort when young.

    With the question of authenticity out of the way, one question is whether the mahoud was manipulating the elephant simultaneously through some behavioral commands or whether the elephant has learned the whole form. The likelihood is the latter, since it would be difficult for the trainer to have the elephant move the brush to a particular x,y coordinate and begin painting, as we see her doing here.

    If we accept either that the elephant has learned a mahoud’s drawing commands or, more likely, that the elephant learned a form — either of which is easily believable considering what we have observed about trained elephants — an important question to many of us regards whether the elephant was trained through positive or negative operant conditioning. There is no way for us to know this in this particular case. Either is possible, again given what we know about the behavior of all earthly creatures, including ourselves.

    A final question regards whether the elephant recognizes the figure as an elephant, whether a self-portrait or of another. There is again no way to know this for certain, but why is it unlikely? Even much lower-order animals recognize contours of friend and enemy creatures. Birds recognize decals of hawks on windows; their very wing shape tells them it is a predator. That’s pretty amazing. Then there are decoy ducks. Racing rabbits. How low can you go? It is a fundamental part of our brain function, going down to insects.

    It’s clear that the elephant was trained. My hope is that she was trained kindly, chiefly through positive feedback methods, the way we should train our own children. If so, she then likely recognizes the picture as something pleasing to her. If not, then she may recognize the picture, but may have very twisted and unhappy feelings about it.

  3. BLUIDSHAY said

    I happen to own one of these portraits. Well, it was painted by an elephant but it is not actually of an elephant, it’s of a tree. My father bought it (I believe in Thailand) after a visit to this (or a similar) elephant reservation. They watched the elephants paint the pictures. Along with my picture, I have a camera shot of the elephant painting it. So I believe wholeheartedly that the film is authentic.

    As for the “how” of the elephant portrait, I have no doubt that the portrait itself is a result of training. But I still find it amazing. And who knows how the elephant finds it? I remember hearing about a study where researchers played recorded vocalizations of an elephant who had long since died to several other elephants who had “roomed” with her herd as calfs at a zoo. They hadn’t had physical contact with her for over two decades. But as soon as they heard the recordings, they became very excited. Recordings of an elephant they didn’t know did not produce the same results. I certainly hope that if the elephant finds it anything at all, it finds the experience pleasing. I echo the last post in hoping that nothing negative was used in training.

  4. This video has gained a great deal of attention on YouTube and in niche communities interested in animals and in elephants per se.

    As someone who has recently returned from an elephant sanctuary in Thailand where performing elephants are rehabilitated and cared for, and as an animal behaviorist, I think it’s important to challenge the label of “training” used here. This is not like the everyday training for “sit” and “stay” or even clicker training sometimes used with the canine members of our families. Far from it. I suppose that few animal lovers have ever even imagined such violent training. Indeed, it was shocking to me even though my professional work involves cruelty and abuse investigations.

    For those curious to know more, I’ve written about the training and rehabilitation of elephants as part of a film recommendation here: Film Recommendation: Thailand’s Urban Giants

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