Pachyderm Picasso gets into the holiday spirit
Video by Blake Helmken
WINSTON — Through a paint-soaked sponge handed to her, African elephant Tava painted a series of ornaments in her signature unswerving style for Wildlife Safari’s Elephant Elves event on Saturday.
“All the elephants have a different style. Tava, she’s really linear. Our other girls, they’ll put some swirlies in it or maybe a couple of spots,” explained Kayla Adkins, one of the elephant keepers at Wildlife Safari in Winston.
Tava dutifully held out her trunk and made a kind of whooshing snorting noise, expelling a shot of fluid into a bucket, provided by another elephant keeper.
“She’s blowing her nose. We teach them to do that before they paint. That way it’s not a watercolor,” Adkins said.
Teaching the elephants to paint happens in a few steps. Picking up objects with their dexterous trunks comes naturally, she explained. Trainers first present elephants with a sponge and reward them with treats like sweet potatoes and melons for picking it up. Eventually, the elephants learn to take the sponge — soaked in nontoxic children’s paint — and do what they like on the canvases they’re given.
For Christmas, the elephants were given adornments to paint, and guests were invited to paint ornaments of their own inside the elephant’s massive barn. Nearby, paintings by the elephants — ornaments and canvases — were for sale.
Crowds of families with young children were ferried from the visitors center to the elephant barn on Saturday under sunny skies. Bouncing and eager on the bus, the children nearly universally stopped and stared up in open-mouthed wonder when they saw Tava standing there.
All around the tremendous tree-trunk-thick bars of the pens where the elephants spend cold winter nights was an ornament painting party. Tables with painting supplies were full of contentedly painting children and parents, volunteers handed out cookies and coffee, while Santa wandered the barn.
“It’s all about bringing families together,” Santa said of the holiday season. “But people often forget about me compared to the elephants.”
He motioned at Tava showing the latest crowd of families how she can hold a giant candy cane with her trunk.
The painting serves two purposes, Adkins said. The tips of elephants’ trunks are sensitive, even ticklish. To care for the elephants, handlers must establish a relationship of trust.
“To properly care for them, we have to be able to touch every part of their bodies. Holding the sponge with that ticklish tip of the trunk, they’re not going to hand it or take it from just anybody. It helps us develop that trust so when we need to touch their trunks for a cut or any kind vet visit, we can,” she said.
Ticklish trunks aside, the elephants high level of intelligence means their minds are as high maintenance as their bodies. Painting counts as what caretakers referred to as enrichment — games, challenges, entertainment. Painting is used as enrichment for animals throughout the park.
“We try to do it with as many animals as we can,” said Micheal Burns, marketing manager at Wildlife Safari.
Alligators, giraffes, gibbons, lemurs, hippos, even snakes all make the variety of paintings for sale in the Wildlife Safari gift shop. The snakes are more used with their tensile bodies to paint rather than painting themselves.
Near the elephants, the giraffes were enticed to the edge of their winter pens with leaves of romaine lettuce. Not enough for a shy young giraffe, Raza, who hung near the back wall of his pen and eyed visitors with suspicion. The new giraffe barn is almost done and should open soon, Burns said. The buildings features balconies where visitors can offer food at eye level with the watchtowers of the Serengeti.
Tigers recently gave birth on the property, but could not be seen from the road. On the bus ride back to the visitors center, hippos emerged from a pond to bask their mud-coated bodies in the winter sunlight. Zebras, wildebeests and the largest antelope in the world — elands — all wandered through the grass grazing complacently. The Watusi of Uganda, enormous horned cattle, climbed the hill toward the road with equally serene expressions.
“A lot of wild animals try to get in here actually — turkeys sometimes,” Mike said
When asked if the predators ever make a turkey dinner of the intruders, he responded with a vague smile.
“It’s enrichment for the lions,” he said.
Flamingos flapped their rosy wings, red pandas climbed through their enclosure, dragging beautiful striped tails behind them. All the while across the walking path, a miniature pig lay in a patch of sunlight, fast asleep. The enclosures framed the visitors center and the gift shop, where the elephant’s paintings hang waiting beside other animal’s artwork.
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Morgan Rothborne at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-776-4487. Follow her on Twitter @MRothborne.