Have you seen the elephant?

Posted on April 5, 2008. Filed under: Culture, HowTo, Philosophy, Science |

elephant_asian2_1a.gif 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”!

This one shows the entire elephant from a distance. And this one is a lovely tour through the elephants’ gallery, with nice music.

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.


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11 Responses to “Have you seen the elephant?”

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Nice post mate! Amazing what some animals can be made to do…. This actually reminds me of an old link I had:


Maybe you have seen it before :)?

Anyway, you have a really good blog! Keep up the great work 🙂

Oh and PS. I wanna say thanks for the “myfreecopyright” and the “creative commons license” as I would want to put a similar thing to my blog 🙂


the elephant’s amazing. i can’t even paint!

Wow! This is true Art!! I am amazed by the elephant’s dexterity..Looking at it first, I wouldn’t have thought this was fake just the way the elephant manipulates the brush..I have never been to San Francisco Zoo but I have been to Berlin Zoo and one close to my native town..I have mixed feelings about zoos..I like going there and I enjoy very much looking at the animals but I also believe that they should be in their natural habitat..Wildlife is not meant to live in a restricted environment..

Elephants are highly intelligent, I don’t like seeing them in zoos. I especially do not like them in a circus, I don’t ever go to a circus now as an adult, which I did as a child. I love your views on animals, you’re an animal lover as I am!

Muse I just came across a site called “Animal Radio” – http://www.animalradio.com/
it’s kewl!

Hello pKay, thanks for visiting! It is amazing what these animals can do. I did read that they were taught to paint, but they seem to enjoy it. As far as I’ve been able to determine, there has been no coercion involved. I had not seen your link before, very interesting. 🙂 I played, and didn’t guess one single one right! I didn’t realize there were Canadian elephants that painted too. You’re welcome for the creative commons and copyright info. I originally saw them on other blogs, too, and believe they are good ways of handling a challenging situation regarding online copyrighted material. Enjoy!

Well, Chiang Mai and friends paint better than I do, sulz!

CV, as an artist yourself, it’s interesting to me how well you think of the elephant art. You make a good point about the way their trunks hold the brush. I’m glad you said that, because it’s something your artist’s eye would notice. I understand your feelings about the zoos. There wouldn’t be other ways for most of us to experience exotic animals, and that can be very wonderful. But the confining environments and the fact that they are forced to be exhibits instead of just living their lives doesn’t sit well with me. They are entitled to their dignity as is all of life. Thank you CV!

Thanks so much, dissfunktional! I do have a reverence for life, and I so agree with you about circuses. I used to go as a child, too, and while there were some things I liked, there were many I didn’t, even then. I always felt there was something off about the animal acts. And those clowns….eeek! 🙂

diss! Animal Radio is very kewl, thanks for sharing it! What an eclectic collection of animal topics. It shall take me a while to explore.

I’m the same as Sulz – I wish I could paint there is so much I would love to put on canvass around here.

I’ll just have to keep asking the wife to take the photos! 🙂

Muse said: “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 say, Exactly! 🙂 Animals of all kinds do communicate and are sentient, though their forms of communication and self-awareness are often very different than what we, as human animals, experience. In fact, it has been my experience that *everything* from stones to trees to rivers have their own ways of communicating and being self-aware. This makes sense if you accept the idea that everything is part of a Divine Whole (i.e. God). My experience is that communicating with beings other than human requires a kind of communication that is based more on “feeling” or “sensing” than any kind of language. Its just a matter of being open to possibility and a willingness to explore and practice to become proficient at this kind of communication. I find it fun! 🙂


Will, perhaps you could learn to paint! After all, the elephants had teachers, and I’ll just bet you’re almost as smart as an elephant. 😉

Joyful, I so agree. There are many kinds of communication and consciousness in this wonderfully abundant universe. I try to approach animals with an open heart, and what usually works well for me is to just speak English to them as I would to anyone, but not talk down to them or patronize them. I don’t expect them to understand the English words I’m saying, but if I’m respectful and playful, I think they “get” my intention and energy. This also works with small children (not that I equate them to animals, per se, LOL). I was staying with family last year who had a young daughter that was on the verge of being verbal, but wasn’t quite there yet. We think just because kids aren’t speaking yet, that they don’t understand our words. Watch out, because they do! We were all getting dressed to go to a party, and I looked her right in the eyes and asked her what shoes she thought I should wear? She was just a teeny little girl, but she toddled off to my room, and brought me back my shoes! I of course thanked her profusely for her help.

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