Animal Artists at Fresno's Chaffee Zoo

Fresno, CA, USA A pair of South American macaws meet you at the door. The official greeters so to speak. Jennifer Wesson, a Chaffee zoo keeper met us there and introduced us to one of the birds: "Here comes Sam Sam, that's my girl." Twice a day keeper Jennifer coaxes Sam Sam, a gold and blue macaw, off her perch for a little art training: "You want to go do some painting?"

That's right, she's learning to paint. Jennifer Wesson: "Want to paint? ... Yeah, there you go ... oh, that's a lot of color now. Good girl, green?"

Patience is a definitely a virtue when assisting an animal artist. Sometimes Sam Sam chose a feather paint brush with orange or green paint and sometimes she dropped them and chatted with us. No one pushed her or any of the birds to do what they don't want to. "Jennifer: She'll continue to express herself, if it's a positive experience."

Following the art lesson Sam Sam is back in the rain forest to great visitors. Sam Sam isn't the only artist here at the zoo and this next one you're going to meet may well be a surprise. "Jodi Wright, Chaffee zoo keeper: "Pismo come ... good ... hold ... Anna water ... target hold ... your time will come ... "

The sea lion exhibit has two budding artists with a pair of disabilities. Pismo was blind when he came to the Chaffee zoo says Jodi Wright: "Right here, you gotta touch the box ... good job. Good girl." Using a box with art paper on it and a series of clicks and whistles she coaxes Pismo to allow her nose to be dotted with non toxic paint and then nudges the paper to start the images.

Anna sees just fine but her back flippers were paralyzed by injury in the wild. She wears a special wet suit to protect them and she too can paint. Jodi Wright: "Good job Anna! Target. Good. Good girl ... shall we try some more paint? Good girl."

These learned responses are the same one they learn that allow keepers to give daily care ... but for fun the same behaviors can enrich their time with painting. And the pair eagerly wait to do so. The free fish also helps! Anna is in love with nudge her painted nose on the canvas. Jodi Wright: As she gets better at it we'll incorporate more colors and we'll have a masterpiece painter after a while. Good job, Anna."

Over the year a number of the Chaffee Zoo animals have created works of art: the Elephants, Orangutans, Siamangs and other Sea Lions.

And with more art and artists in the mix the staff expects to exhibit and sell these animal works of art sometime in the future. And that's why Jennifer keeps asking Sam Sam this question: "You want to go do some painting?


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