When animals have the seeming capability to do exclusively human things, it’s hard not to get caught up in the moment and lose sense as to whether or not they should be. Or, why they are?

Wild animals are often caught on film or witnessed doing miraculous things all on their own: One species of animal coming to the aid of another, animals saving humans in dangerous situations, wild animals seemingly appreciative of human kindness.

In short, animals are amazing enough being animals. But, sometimes we humans forget it. We dress up our dogs in Halloween costumes. We marvel at seals balancing balls on their noses. We train tigers to jump through flaming hoops and kowtow to whips.

Sometimes, we buy the artistic expressions that elephants put on canvas as if these elephants have bared their souls voluntarily. We forget that this is something they’ve been taught, or more accurately forced, to do. After all, these elephants haven’t just walked into a space, found brushes, and started creating art. They’ve been trained to do it.

Elephants Don’t Paint on Their Own

Source: Desi News/Youtube

It seems that it goes without saying that elephants do not naturally get into painting. The supplies aren’t available to them in the wild, and frankly, they are busier doing other stuff: eating, migrating, and mating. Even in captivity, elephants are not natural painters.

They wouldn’t just happen to find some art materials and put together a nice self-portrait. Smart as they are, this isn’t independent elephant behavior. It doesn’t happen in nature. It doesn’t happen in captivity without a human wishing it to.

Is painting of any use to an elephant? If not, why would we be teaching them to do it?

Elephants Are Forced to Paint

Source: Thai Aussies/Youtube

But they are clever enough to be trained to paint simple patterns. And this “training” takes months of abuse until the elephant gets the brush strokes down. The reward is getting to perform this trick multiple times a day while people watch.

In bad cases, a mahout (keeper of elephants) keeps an even closer eye in order to correct the elephant should the painting not be done properly. In the best cases, elephants are rewarded when they perform tasks for “humane” training.

Does it sound like elephants are painting or like people are making them paint?

Elephants Don’t Enjoy Painting

Source: Travels & Chases/Youtube

Because elephants are expected to paint something recognizable and perform while doing so, they are directed by trainers as to what to do, and they are often punished when they don’t get it right.

Mahouts pull on the animals’ sensitive ears to encourage certain brush strokes, and they use prods to control the animals when it hasn’t met expectations. Or, in “positive” learning environments, the elephants are given treats when they perform the task. The treat is rewarding, of course, but the painting is just a means to that end.

Does that sound fun or therapeutic for the elephant?

Elephant Painting Is for Human Entertainment

Source: Elephant Art Online/Youtube

There is no reason for an elephant to paint, so when they are doing so, it is purely for human entertainment. They are being coerced or bribed into performances they would otherwise never provide, and they are being punished when they don’t perform.

All of this is happening so that humans can come and watch elephants paint or so that humans can buy elephant-produced paintings. Even in the case of raising money for a good cause (helping elephants), do we really need elephants to paint in order to donate to their preservation? Doesn’t that sound awful and exploitative?

Elephant Paint So That People Profit

Source: Elephant Art Online/Youtube

In many cases, tourists pay money to see elephants paint, and it’s people who profit from this exchange. Then, the paintings elephants repetitively “create” are sold for more money. Elephants are kept in captivity, prodded to paint daily, and the profits go to the people keeping them captive and coercing them to do something unnatural.

The painting elephants don’t get any benefit from this. Even if elephants, on the whole, were getting the money from it, individual elephants shouldn’t be forced into this situation of earning money for the species. It’s not their job. They are animals. We shouldn’t need anything from them.

The Maetaeng Elephant Park in Thailand is home to Suda, an elephant that is forced to paint and became widely known after Joe Rogan spoke about her on his podcast. This Park sells Suda and other elephant paintings on its website for hundreds of dollars. Similarly, the Thai Elephant Conservation Center forces elephants to paint and give rides to tourists. Visitors on Trip Advisor pointed out how they mistook the park for a real conservation center when it was merely just a tourist trap that exploited animals for profit.

“We visited this place under the guise that it was a conservation center and looked after the animals well. Sadly this was not the case. If you are interested in helping the elephants this is not the place to visit. We witnessed then chained up and rides. There was also a “show” which demonstrated the skill of the elephants and the painting demonstration,” a visitor wrote on Trip Advisor.

“I really wanted to like this place because there are some philanthropic elements like the hospital, but don’t be fooled. I saw multiple instances of abuse while I was there, and I’m not just talking about the chains and hooks they use to train (which were extremely bothersome as well). I’m talking about unnecessary whipping and stabbing when the mahouts thought we weren’t looking and the hooks (as if they aren’t bad enough) have nails on the ends to make them even more painful,” another wrote.

Source: elephantartaeacp/Youtube

For many, painting elephants remains a controversial thing. If the animals are trained with positive reinforcement over punishment (some are), if the animals are taken from the wild but rescued from awful circumstances (this is sometimes the case), and if the animals are just being used for human profiteering (some aren’t), then… they are still doing something unnatural, something that ultimately boils down to human amusement. Is that something we really want to defend or support?

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