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A Menagerie of Matisses? Zoos Sell Animal Art

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A Menagerie of Matisses? Zoos Sell Animal Art

Arts & Life

A Menagerie of Matisses? Zoos Sell Animal Art

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Most people can't afford to hang a Matisse or a Van Gogh, but what about a canvas painted by an orangutan? Several zoos across the country now sell paintings done by their animals. Houston Zoo, for example, offers a $500 experience, in which you can sit and watch an orangutan make a painting just for you.

Okay now, put a little magenta in that sunset. For years, the San Diego Zoo has offered paintings made by a rhino who smears paint with his lips. You're going to tell a rhino that he's no Picasso?

Gigi Allianic is spokesperson for Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo. She's overseen several animal art auctions and joins us from her office. Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. GIGI ALLIANIC (Spokesperson, Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle, Washington): Thank you, happy to be here.

SIMON: How many animals in the Woodland Park Zoo are painters?

Ms. ALLIANIC: Right now, it's our orangutans, particularly Towan, he's a 40-year-old orangutan; and our herd of elephants, two of our Asian elephants and our African elephant.

SIMON: The question is always raised: Is this a gimmick, just a fundraising gimmick?

Ms. ALLIANIC: Actually, the paintings sold here is not a major revenue stream for Woodland Park Zoo since the elephants started painting in 1996. We've only earned about $8,000 from the paintings. It's actually enrichment for the animals. It's very stimulating, both physically and mentally, for the elephants. They get the individual attention by the keepers. So that's what it is for the animal.

On the public side, when we sell the paintings in the zoo store, when we've put them up for bid on eBay, it raises awareness about the elephants, about orangutans. You know, people are amazed and say wow, an orangutan can paint?

SIMON: Now how do you settle on a price for a painting by an elephant?

Ms. ALLIANIC: Well the first time we sold a painting was through our premier fundraiser, Jungle Party, and the first painting sold for about $1,400.

We sold an orangutan painting in the auction held for the holidays this past year, and that painting by Towan, our orangutan, sold in less than six minutes for $1,000.

SIMON: I mean this absolutely seriously. Do you show any artwork to the elephants or orangutans to kind of get their creative juices flowing? I mean, how do they know that they're supposed to paint?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ALLIANIC: No, we don't show any artwork. It really is a lot of training. It's time invested by the keepers. For elephants, for example, our African elephant, she did not quite pick up that brush right away. They really had to work with her. Towan is the one who is really focused on painting. He particularly likes it. He can spend one to two hours painting.

He will hunker down over his canvas. If another orangutan tries to grab that from him, he will pick up his painting supplies and walk to a corner for privacy and complete that painting.

SIMON: Well Ms. Allianic, nice talking to you, and our best to all the artists there at the Woodland Park Zoo.

SIMON: Thank you.

SIMON: Gigi Allianic of the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, and this is NPR News.

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