The “Creative” Painting Elephant Seen on Facebook: A Cautionary Tale

I was never an ardent Facebook user, and I rarely visit these days. I’ve been on the verge of severing my ties completely to protest all the harm Zuckerberg, et al, have done. But then I read about the many small business people and others whose livelihoods depend upon FB. So in place of deletion, I’ve been staging a personal semi-boycott. Mark Zuckerberg isn’t pleading with me to be more involved, but his emissaries definitely are. I get daily emails about “things/people/groups that may interest you.”

Occasionally, in addition to inspiring stories and news from friends, some remarkable videos appear. I saw one yesterday morning. (I am years late to this story, so forgive me if it’s old news to you.)

A large elephant stood in front of an easel, a paintbrush in her trunk. With no one seeming to help her, she was painting a picture of…an elephant! A self-portrait!

The person who posted the video had written something about “God’s Creators—Not Creatures—They’re Creators.”

Hmm, I thought. I do love elephants—their majestic forms; their intelligence; their extraordinary memories. Knowing the dangers that poaching and hunting pose to their continuing existence, I thought perhaps highlighting this apparent “skill” might make a worthy blog post.

But the video had a “too good to be true” ring to it. There had to be more to the story.

So I did a little research.

It seems “Elephant Art” is a lucrative business. “Authentic Paintings Made by Elephants at our Elephant Park & Clinic in Thailand” offers one source. “We are also the home of world-famous Elephant Suda. Free worldwide delivery…Net proceeds goes (sic) to our elephants…Support our elephants.”

The web site shows paintings resting on easels, with elephants beside them. Prices range from $490.00 to $1,990.00, and each buyer is promised a video of the elephant artist at work and a “Certificate of Authenticity.”

Elephant Suda is apparently especially renowned.

“Suda is a 15 years old girl and has been painting for 10 years. She is responsible for raising thousands of dollars for our elephant hospital. She is a very gentle lady and she loves to paint and is very precise with all her paintings. She has been featured on CNN, Wall Street Journal and Joe Rogan’s Podcast.”

According to Snopes.com (https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/elephant-painting/), the story goes back to 1996, when an article in BBC News described an exhibition of paintings by elephants in an Edinburgh gallery. A 26-year-old art graduate had brought the paintings to the gallery from Thailand.

Asked “Does a video show an elephant painting a picture of an elephant?,” Snopes responded that the answer is partly true, as the elephants are actually creating pictures by applying paint with a brush held in their trunks.

“However, although these animals may be creating artworks in a purely physical sense, critics contend that the elephants participating in this activity are not actually ‘painting’ in any meaningful sense of the word.

“They aren’t engaging in any form of creativity, much less abstractly making free-form portraits of whatever tickles their pachydermic fancies at the moment; rather, they’re simply actors performing in tourist trap attraction in Thailand, where they do nothing more than outline and color specific drawings they’ve been painstakingly trained to replicate—and they manage that much only while receiving a good deal of prompting and guidance throughout the process from their mahout (trainers).

The Snopes article quotes in detail the description provided by zoologist Desmond Morris and scientist Richard Dawkins in 2009, one year after they had visited Thailand to look behind the elephant-as-painter curtain. Essentially, a lot of stage-managing and a bit of sleight-of-hand is involved.

Most troubling of all: Snopes cites allegations of severe abuse that the elephants undergo to get them to the point at which they can perform. The “training process” reportedly goes back centuries but is still used in Asia today.

A three-year-old elephant is taken from its mother and confined to a tiny cage, where it fights for its freedom. It is “beaten, poked with sharp bamboo, starved, dehydrated, and sleep-deprived until it submits to its captors’ demands…About 50% of the babies die from the process and survivors are left with physical and emotional scars for the rest o their lives.”

The person providing this account isn’t named, but Snopes is a reputable source.

This person concludes:
“I honestly hope that if people knew the true process for creating a picture, they would not offer any support at all for it. So PLEASE tell your friends, family, anyone who will listen: DO NOT SUPPORT ELEPHANT PAINTINGS IN ANY WAY, SHAPE, OR FORM.”

One source confirming that account is Elephant Asia Rescue and Survival foundation (www.earsasia.org), an elephant reserve that wants people just to observe elephants and leave them alone. “If you love elephants,” their site says, “don’t ride…don’t buy paintings…don’t go to shows….If you are planning a holiday that includes an elephant experience, please do your research and make it cruelty-free.”

EARS ASIA, ironically, can be found on Facebook. So can the Snopes article, but it’s tough to locate. When I searched for “snopes painting elephants,” I got videos of elephants painting. The first was the one I’d seen; originally posted in 2017, it has received 53,000 views. When I searched with the terms “painting elephants cruelly trained,” a video of an elephant painting a tree appeared.

My research had brought me full circle, back to Facebook. But this time, I had a dramatically different perspective than when I’d first stumbled on that seemingly delightful video.

Annie

18 thoughts on “The “Creative” Painting Elephant Seen on Facebook: A Cautionary Tale

  1. I wrote this comment after watching the video but before reading your entire post. What the elephant painted is still amazing, but with the background you provided, I, too, now have a different take on the video.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Ugh. Another horrible abuse of our creatures. I’m so sorry to read about it, but glad for the facts. You always come through, Annie. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The only ‘good’ thing about this practice is that, at least, these elephants aren’t being shot by hunters. In all likelihood, the day is coming when the only surviving elephants on the planet will be those in zoos and those being used to make money.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. If only it is poking with a stick! A bull hook is like an ax cutting deep into your your skin the deeper the dig the the wider the cut into the flesh of the animal! What infuriates me is why anyone would want to control a wild animal! All for greed, to make money! I am disgusted by leadership of countries in Asia that allow this savage abuse! I will not travel to these countries and will discourage family friends and travel agencies from booking travel until laws are made to prohibit the abuse of domesticating wild Elephants, to prohibit public and private and religious ownership of Elephants for any form of work slavery including logging, tourism taxis, circuses, zoos, ritual parades, sport games, entertainment activities and forced breeding under penalty and prison and fines!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I appreciate your passion on this issue. We are in danger of losing this marvelous species, and I agree that public refusal to participate in their abuse—which, of course, includes refusal to purchase ivory—and encouragement of protective laws are critically important.

        Like

  4. Oh geez! That stinks. I remember seeing this video a while ago. It had slipped my mind but had I known the story behind it, which you reveal here, I would have remembered the scam aspect of the paintings.

    Where there’s money to be made, con-artists always find a way to exploit it. Good for you and others for taking a deeper look.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it’s quite upsetting to know what those magnificent animals are subjected to by unscrupulous profiteers. But the fact that most people viewing the video on Facebook—and elsewhere—don’t know the back story compounds the injustice.

      Liked by 1 person

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