At age 30, Christie the African Elephant is a vibrant, playful, and creative artist. Nurturing her love for painting through positive reinforcement, Christie’s keepers, Lauren and Deborah, trained her to hold the brush, and have since watched her art style develop on its own. Christie’s 6-year-old daughter, Zuri, also paints, but as a young elephant, she hasn’t quite developed her craft.
Painting is part of Hogle Zoo’s Enrichment Program for the elephants in which keepers develop exercises to mentally and physically stimulate the animals. Because elephants are extremely intelligent, it can be a challenge to keep them motivated and excited. Keepers have found that play is one way to keep them stimulated. The elephants are never forced to participate in the enrichment programs, but are encouraged to do so. Christie seems genuinely excited to work with her trainers, and that excitement is mutual. Coming up with inventive ways for Christie to play and have fun is a collaborative process. Her trainer, Lauren, who has worked with elephants for years, says, “it definitely is very inspiring.”
Watching the elephants, it’s hard to describe the push and pull between creativity and play. Are these animals merely performing for rewards, or are they truly engaged in an act that mentally and emotionally stimulates them — an act that in itself is rewarding?
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