Peter is an independent international zoo consultant, critic and writer with over 50 years of work within zoos.
There is no general agreement as to what actually constitutes 'Art' within human endeavor. It really is a case of it being in the eye of the beholder.
When it comes to animals it becomes even more complicated.
Probably the nearest one can come to animal art that could appeal to the human eye is that produced by the Bowerbird. Or could it be a honeycomb? There are so many possibilities within nature.
Courtship Bower of the Bowerbird
Animal paintings within the zoo world are popular but in the main consist of the likes of Hippo nose prints and canvases that various animals have walked across with painted feet.
There is no harm in it. Such productions can be extremely appealing and look attractive when hung on a wall. A collection of such can give happy memories to the owner and many will strive to build on it.
True paintings are rarer. This would be where the animal is taught to hold a brush and apply paint to canvas. Training is one of the very best forms of enrichment but really you need an interested participant. There are painting Pigs, Parrots, Sealions, Dolphins, Elephants and so many more. For the most part it is simple stuff and only becomes really clever when the animal actually selects the colours.
I have on three occasions watched elephants painting. As I am familiar with the secretive verbal or hand cues used in training I watched for these. They weren't there. The elephants had carried out the task so many times they painted from memory. Always the same painting though, repetitively. Nothing original.
Elephant 'Artist' at Work
An Ape Art Auction
Circa 1985 we decided that including finger painting for our group of Chimpanzees would be a worthwhile enrichment activity.
Easy and cheap enough. Paper and non toxic paints. From the outset it was interesting because whereas some of the animals were interested the majority were not. They were happy enough to watch but didn't want to become involved.
The 'artwork' produced varied. Choices of colors, strokes and squiggles. I believe we produced around a dozen creations on the first day. The keeping staff loved them and took them home.
We had the idea that the public may like some and so we would hold an art auction. Money raised would go to the keeping staff library.
Around a week of enrichment activity produced thirty paintings. We used a high quality parchment type paper and each painting was framed with a written guarantee on the back.
I thought it needed something else and so I named each one. It wasn't random, I spent time looking and interpreting what I saw.
As this was pre social media advertising was a case of a few fliers. There were about thirty people who turned up to the auction. Bidding was quite brisk and there was high demand for some of the works. Not everyone got what they wanted. It was a success though and we raised a decent amount of money.
A few months later we repeated the auction and attendance was much higher. This time there was an art dealer in attendance and he went away with seventy percent of the productions.
I reckon that today we would do so much better.
Chimpanzee Artist at Work
Famous Ape Artists
Congo - Chimpanzee, London Zoo
Betsy - Chimpanzee, Baltimore Zoo
Alexander - Orangutan, London Zoo
Sophie - Gorilla, Rotterdam Zoo
Dzeta - Bonobo, Belgium
Charles - Gorilla, Toronto Zoo
Kanzi - Bonobo, Research facility
Pierre Brassau - Chimpanzee, Borås Zoo
There are many others, famous and not so famous and prices of their works at auction can be extremely high. Three of Congo's paintings went for $25,000.