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Elephants are utterly magnificent beings. When seen in the wild, they appear like creatures from another world, and their size and grace is so humbling to a mere human. It is near impossible not to be absolutely floored by the sight of a real life pachyderm, and what could be more astounding than watching a gentle elephant use his trunk to paint a picture of a flower? This encounter would surely be the most peaceful, beautiful experience one is likely to ever have.

But wait; let’s take a step back for a moment. Under what circumstances would you come across an elephant painting a picture in the wild? Last we checked, plains of Thailand didn’t have a craft corner…

Well, if you find yourself in this rather bizarre situation, chances are said painting-elephant is being held in captivity. Elephant tourism is extremely popular in Thailand, so much so that the native Asian elephant population has all but disappeared from the wild. Tourists from across the world flock to Thailand to have an experience unlike anything they could get at home. Seeing a live elephant is often included as one of these experiences. Lucky for tourists, there are countless elephant trekking excursions, and elephant “camps,” where (for a small fee) people can spend the day in the presence of these breathtaking animals.

But, as we look more closely into these “happy” elephant excursions, the more concerned we become for the welfare of the elephants living in captivity.

The Incredible Elephant Artists of Thailand

The Maesa Elephant Camp has been in operation since 1976, and is credited with pioneering the concept of the “artist” elephant. Maesa Elephant Camp is located just outside Chiang Mai, Thailand, a Thai tourism hotspot. There are seventy-eight elephants currently “enrolled” in the camp, all of whom were purchased by the camp’s founder, Choochart Kalmapijit’s over the past thirty years.

The Maesa Elephant Camp website explains, “Choochart purchased elephants from all over the country, and with their mahouts and other experts, worked and fell in love with the elephants, revealing one skill or fact after another about these pachyderms.”

You Can't Spell Elephant Painting Without Pain!

The high intelligence of elephants is often credited with their ability to learn how to paint so effortlessly. However, just as an elephant in the wild would not chose to jump into a handstand, it is not likely they ever aspired to be a Pachyderm Picasso either.

One of the “skills” lauded by the elephants at Maesa Elephant Camp, of course, is the uncanny ability to paint.

You Can't Spell Elephant Painting Without Pain!

How are Elephants Taught to Paint?

According to the Maesa Elephant Camp website, the artists of the camp started to take the stage in 2000, “when the young calves in Maesa Elephant Nursery reached two year of age, it was time to separate them from their mothers. ”

And like all good adults, these little elies were put to work! “From that day forward, these little ‘Jumbos’ would live with and be trained by a mahout, learning commands, performing skills, and – for the first time at Maesa Elephant Camp – painting!”

Further, the site explains that it took around a month to teach the elephants to learn to hold a brush with their trunks – they were a bit reluctant at first, but got the hang of it in no time! Once this skill was mastered, they were ready to learn to dip their brushes into paint. “One of our pachyderm prodigies successfully painted dots, while the other three chose to paint beautiful lines.”

And thus, the Gallery Maesa was started.

Well, if you’re simply not satisfied with this simplistic explanation for how you can teach a wild baby elephant to stand still and focus on painting, then please do read on.

A More Likely Story

While we cannot allege that Maesa utilizes these methods for training their Jumbo painters, this is a credible account of how elephants are traditionally trained to paint in the Thai tourism industry, provided thanks to the research performed by devoted elephant conservation organizations across Thailand.

Born Free explains that it is a “myth” that the elephant’s ability to paint is a result of their natural cleverness. Rather, directly refuting Maesa’s story about how their elephants learned to paint, “Elephants endure months of physical abuse to learn how to hold a paint brush, draw a straight line and paint flowers and leaves on trees.”

Like elephants used in the elephant trekking industry, young elephants used for painting must be broken and experience the pain of the phajaan process. Over this time baby elephants are starved, shackled, and beaten, until their spirit is completely broken and will submit to the will of their captors.  Once young elephants have undergone this process they can being learning to paint.

You Can't Spell Elephant Painting Without Pain!Thinking of Going Elephant Trekking This Summer? Here’s What You Need to Know Before You Book!

 Training a Master

Elephants use special brushes to create their “masterpieces.” These brushes are inserted straight into the trunk and have a dividing bar that rests at the very end of the truck to keep the brush from falling all the way up the elephant’s nose.

You Can't Spell Elephant Painting Without Pain!

The paint brushes are inserted into the elephant’s nose as such:

You Can't Spell Elephant Painting Without Pain!


And the elephant learns to grip around the top of the brush. The elephant’s trunk is incredibly sensitive and full of nerve endings. In the wild elephants will avoid acacia trees because these trees house ants that might crawl into the elephants trunk and bite. While the paint brush might not bite … we can’t imagine it is a comfortable experience.

During a painting performance, the elephant’s mahout stands diligently at the elephants side, poised with bull hooks.

You Can't Spell Elephant Painting Without Pain!


Bull hooks or the more discrete method, a nail that can be hidden in the mahout’s hand, is shoved into the soft tissue of the elephants ear.

You Can't Spell Elephant Painting Without Pain!

To train the elephant to move the brush to create stroke patterns that we recognize as flowers, trees, or even an elephant, the mahouts use these painful prods to guide the elephant’s movements. Further if an elephant paints incorrectly, they are beaten, either with a bull hook, or physically hit on their head or trunk.

You Can't Spell Elephant Painting Without Pain!

When this skill is mastered, the elephant will be expected to recreate the same pattern every single day, sometimes twice or even three times.

Naturalist, Desmond Morris bore witness to an elephant painting show in Thailand, looking to discern whether elephants could really create paintings at their own will, based on their individual creative talents. From his observation, the mahout kept a tight grip on the elephants ear for the entire performance, tugging either right or left to manipulate the elephant into making a certain brush stroke.

You Can't Spell Elephant Painting Without Pain!


What YOU CAN and MUST do to Stop This Suffering

After reading this we’re sure that a Green Monster such as yourself is plenty upset. We were too! The good news is that you have the power to do something about it by simply refusing to patronize elephant camps that feature painting elephants. Maesa is hardly the only “elephant camp” in Thailand, and it is certainly not alone in their practices.

If you see elephants being kept in chains who bear the scars of these chains around their ankles, that’s a red flag. If you see mahouts with bull hooks in their hands, that’s a red flag. If you see an elephant perform a behavior it would never in the wild  (i.e. twirling a hulu hoop on it’s nose, or bowing to an audience), that’s a red flag. Elephants are incredibly intelligent beings, and with this in mind can you really believe that they would turn themselves into clowns for our entertainment if not being trained via torture to do so?

You Can't Spell Elephant Painting Without Pain!


Sharing the Truth About Elephant Painting

Elephant painting camps, like Maesa Elephant Camp, thrives on the tourism industry. Between vacationers who visit the camp, to people who purchase and share elephant painting and merchandise, camps like Maesa are able to continue operation. There are also countless videos featuring elephants painting in this manner on the internet. Be sure not to share videos that feature elephants who are being tortured into painting for tourists, and to share this article with those who do share these videos. From the outside it may appear that the elephants can “magically” create works of art, but now that you know how elephants are traditionally taught to paint … it’s your duty to share the truth.

Many people do not realize the cruelty that occurs behind the scenes at elephant camps, but when you know what to look for – suddenly all the red flags are there.

Leave a Review on Tripadvisor and Similar Sites

While your individual boycott of Maesa Elephant Camp and others will make a difference, you can magnify that impact by spreading the word and mobilizing with your other Green Monsters.

If you or someone you know has witnessed the cruelty that occurs in an elephant painting show, share this article on their Tripadvisor review page to advise others not to stop by if they’re in the area.

Expose Others

Let us know (in the comments sections) about other animal attractions and elephant camps that should be banned for the way they treat animals.

When we know truth, it is our duty to share this truth. No animals deserve to suffer for the sake of our trivial entertainment.

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182 comments on “Elephant Artists? Here’s Why Making an Elephant Paint is Cruel, Not Cute”

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8 Days ago

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Erin Henninger
1 Months Ago

How can I support stopping this cruelty. My little daughter was mesmerized by a video, and now knows the truth. She is devastated and wants to make some little difference in these beautiful creatures lives!

1 Months Ago

this whole story is bullshit .
The drawing is made by the helper tugging the elephants ear
He nudges it up and down to get the animal to make a vertical line, or pulls it sideways to get a horizontal one. To encourage spots and blobs he tugs the ear forward, towards the canvas. So, very sadly, the design the elephant is making is not hers but his. There is no elephantine invention, no creativity, just slavish copying.
But nowhere near the sad story Madame Good made up

19 Sep 2017

Are you nuts? You clearly know nothing about elephants whatsoever. Go away and do some research - you could start by googling \'Phajan\' and see how the captive elephant\'s life of slavery begins.

1 Months Ago

I saw a painting elephant video on fb. I noticed that man stand very near behind the elephant and is shown on screen only for short time. So I googled "Man behind elephant painting video" and first link was yours. Thank you very much for explaining. Now I think that video was not amazing but it was cruel.

Richard T. Mcallum
1 Months Ago

When I saw the elephant painting video yesterday on Sonia Horodysky\'s Facebook page, I was amazed and I commented this on Facebook to Sonia. I also asked a couple to view it in an Indian restaurant later last night. The girl commented "Could it be that the person who puts the brush into the elephant\'s trunk, then disappears behind the elephant, may be somehow guiding the elephant to do the brush strokes?" I told her that I thought not. I thought that the performance was really amazing. But after reading the above article, now I feel quite sad for the baby elephant. However, when I saw the "little sole" paint the ground under the painted elephant with the green paint, it looked to me that the "artist" was simply "geeked with happiness". It flapped its ears, wagged its tail, and bobbed its head up and down. Also, when the man rose up from the paint source to give the freshly reloaded paintbrush to the elephant, the creature seemed very eager and quickly approached the canvas and raised its trunk so it could receive the brush to continue painting. It really seemed to enjoy painting. I am amazed at what I saw, but now feel sad for the poor animal at the same time. I will leave the video shared on my Facebook page, but will also put a comment about your article along with it. Thanks for the heads up.

1 Months Ago

Thanks for explaining this!

I was firstly startled by a video which showed an elephant drawing another elephant and thought this was the creativity of the elephant. Once I saw the guy standing and moving all the time next to him I got suspiscious, once the elephant was drawing alphabet letters, I knew this couldn\'t come from him. Sad story. That something so beautiful as a drawing elephant has such a twisted background (it\'s a good lesson to not always believe the first thing you see ;) ).

I still believe elephants and animals in general are great living creatures and should be treated with more respect. We as humans shouldn\'t feel highly superior to them.

5 Months Ago

Although there likely is some truth to some of the points they make in this article, I feel like there are some unjust statements being made. Yes, painting is something unnatural to elephants, but so is the computer that you used to make this post. ANd just because something is unnatural doesn\'t mean it\'s bad. If ANYTHING, the bad thing is the zoos, not the painting.

Does the elephant exhibit any signs of pain when the paint brush is inserted into the trunk? It surprises me that this is the method in which they do this, but animals typically do show pain when injured.

I have serious doubts that every place abuses their elephants. Like you mention, elephants are highly intelligent creatures, and I would be unsurprised if the manage to pick up the art. Humanely training the elephant to paint isn\'t abuse, just like training a dog to work at an airport, or as a seeing eye dog isn\'t abuse.

I sincerely hope that these facts aren\'t true.

10 Aug 2017

Good Lord, did you just compare an animal being unjustly abused to a computer?

19 Sep 2017

The very fact that these elephants are in captivity is shocking enough. Go and watch a video on \'Phajan\' because this is how an enslaved elephant begins his time in captivity. Of course this story is true. An elephant is a wild animal. Do you seriously think he/she enjoys his enslavement and abuse? I can\'t believe the naivete of ppl such as yourself. Just think about it for a moment - why would a wild animal choose to wander around in chains \'painting pictures\'?

6 Months Ago

You\'re just creating and stimulating UNNECESSARY anger in readers ...claiming things you don\'t know for a fact,... This exaggerated \'care\' for animals results in violence against humans at times...
And why shouldn\'t an animal be shown that it\'s possible for it to be creative? (Without cruelty of course) Do you know that these elephants make their living in that way? And seeing them instills admiration...
There is endless number of examples of \'unnatural\' behavior in people, as well as cruelty that has become norm! - teachers, spouses, parents and children.... So don\'t blow this out of proportion , looking for enemies and villains
You might as well investigate ballet schools, or sport institutions etc , where young people go through hell (not always of their own accord ) so millions could enjoy their performance one day... ( there are many sad stories behind it all... - for silly, vain and patriotic reasons. )

15 Mar 2017

Todo lo hacen para divertir a los seres humanos que somos la especie depredadora más infame en el planeta

19 Sep 2017

\'Animals make their living by painting\'. What the hell are you talking about? \'Make their living\'? An elephant is a wild animal - he/she shouldn\'t have to \'make his living\'. He/She has been stolen from his mother as a baby. He/she is then beaten and stabbed and has cigarette butts put out on him and objects rammed into his ears. This goes on for 3 or 4 days in full view of the mother. The object is to break the bond with the mother - the baby sees the mother can no longer help him/her and he is at the mercy of human devils. Many of the babies die or are rendered deaf for life. The ones that survive are then \'trained\'. This means they are tortured until they do the stupid tricks their \'owners\' want them to do. You are a very stupid person and should not be allowed anywhere near a computer. Go away and educate yourself and hang your head in shame that you spoke so much about something you know absolutely nothing about.

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