Have you seen the elephant?
Perhaps, as I did, you received an email about an elephant from Thailand who paints pictures. Perhaps, as well, you were a bit skeptical at first. (I, in fact, received the email on April Fool’s Day, the same day I heard a radio broadcast about a baby Tyrannosaurus Rex having been sighted in the Congo—April Fool!) As most others did, I “ooo’d and ahhh’d” as I watched Chiang Mai use a brush and apply paint to canvas. The resulting painting was startling in both composition and technique. I particularly noticed the way the elephant’s legs were painted, showing a sense of proportion I, at least don’t have.
The video I’ve seen most around the Internet is this eight-minute one showing Chiang Mai creating a self-portrait. I’m particularly moved by what the elephant paints last. I’ve seen a few comments regarding the fact that during most of the actual painting we’re shown only the elephant’s trunk holding the paint brush, and therefore we could have been duped with a “fake trunk”!
I didn’t realize when I first saw the YouTube videos that some of the elephants had been taught to paint by abstract artists. CBS News did a News Magazine piece on this (which I missed ) and has a short synopsis on their site.
There is a book available called Elephants of Thailand which offers insight into the role these animals have played in art and culture there. I’ve always had a fondness for these animals, and found it tragic that in some countries they’ve been used, abused, and slaughtered for their ivory. They are quite friendly and loyal if treated well, and they mourn for their dead, and exhibit grief when unkindly parted from their small ones. They have a rich cultural, mythological and religious history as well. I appreciate the portrayal of Ganesh in Indian culture.
When I was very young, I used to enjoy visiting the San Francisco Zoo, one of the “best” and largest in North America. (They’ve has serious publicity problems lately after a tiger broke out of an enclosure and injured two young men and killed another). I liked the animals, then, and the Zoo was someplace I could go all by myself, even at a young age. The bus went right there from my house! They had audio broadcast boxes which told a little about each animal, where the animal originated, and what sounds they made, if any. The first box inside the Zoo gates proclaimed: “All the animals in the Zoo are jumping up and down for you…”
Gradually as I aged, I began to feel that the animals, especially the big ones like elephants weren’t happy at the Zoo. I asked my parents about this, and it seemed to be their feeling that animals didn’t care about happiness. It was wrong to mistreat them, of course, but they really didn’t notice anything as long as they got fed and had a comfy place to sleep. I must admit I never bought this point of view. I have since learned to “talk to the animals”—well, at least some of them, and have come to believe that they exhibit a different—not “lower” but different—kind of consciousness to those of us who use spoken language as our main definer of intelligence. I’m glad the S.F. Zoo and many others have taken great strides in improving their habitats. In fact one of the reasons the tiger got loose is because the Zoo had tried to make the habitats less restrictive with lower walls. It seems they didn’t get the balance right. Still, though, I’m uncomfortable with keeping lots of animals on exhibit. We used to do that with, shall I say “unusual” looking people, too, and of course now we see that as wrong. I am for large and less-confining habitats for endangered species, and even scientific study of them, if some effort has been made to gain the animal’s permission for such. (Yes, there are ways to do this).
I’m not sure when this became an anti-Zoo rant. I’m sure Zoos have their place, as all of conscious creation does. It’s just when I come across a story like Chiang Mai’s, I like to think there is another way. Rather than attempting to control other life forms, perhaps, perhaps, we can listen to and learn from them.