This past Sunday, Dave and I got to go to the Portland zoo to see Rama the painting elephant in action. Dave had interviewed the elephant keeper, and Jeb invited him to come see Rama do his thing. Of course, I tagged along! A painting elephant? I was so there. Maybe I could learn something. Hello, Rama:
Having never stood this close to an elephant before, I can say that it is indeed rather overwhelming how big they are. I think Jeb said Rama weighs something like 12,000 or 13,000 pounds(!).
How the painting process works is like this. Jeb prepares a canvas and places it on an easel within Rama's reach. When it's time to paint Jeb says, "Give me your beak," and Rama swings his trunk over. Jeb takes a syringe of acrylic paint and squirts it's contents into the tip of Rama's trunk.
Then he brings his trunk over to the canvas and Jeb tells him to blow. Basically, he sneezes paint onto the canvas. Splatter painting. It's messy! Dave and I were standing maybe 8 feet away and got totally sprayed by the flying droplets. He does this for a while with different colors of paint, and in between the different colors Jeb has Rama clean his trunk by sucking up some water and then spraying it out with the force of a firehose onto the windows, to the surprise and amusement of the children behind the glass. (Incidentally: we were literally the only people at the zoo on a Sunday morning at 10am without children in tow. It was a midget mob scene. We feared we seemed like weird, childless pervs.)
Then, when Jeb deems there's enough different colors on the canvas, he lets Rama "draw" in the paint with the tip of his trunk, and also gives him a brush to drag through the paint as well. Elephant's trunks are amazing.
Prehensile proboscis! (Sorry! Couldn't . . . resist . . . alliteration . . .)
Let's be honest: as a work of art, it's downright hideous. But it's not really about the painting, is it?
As Jeb tells it, elephants are have gigantic brains, are super smart, and go crazy with boredom in captivity. His job as a keeper is to keep coming up with new things for Rama and the other elephants to do, to keep them challenged and interested, and to make sure that they live, as he puts it, "significant lives."
The other part of the elephant painting thing is that it's great PR for the zoo, and while entertaining, is also a chance to get the public to care about elephants, and their dire plight in the world. They are terribly endangered, both in zoos and in the wild. Apparently, one thing we as Americans can do is to not buy products made with palm oil, because elephants face serious habitat loss in Asia due to palm oil plantations. Then, when the elephants inevitably "trespass" onto the plantations and eat the palm trees, they are killed as nuisances.
I hate us. Most of the time, I agree with that character in The Matrix who compared humans to a virus, a cancer overrunning and ruining the planet. It doesn't seem like an overstatement to me, just a fact.