Meet some elephants that can paint their own picture (video)

In Thailand, they have elephants who can paint a picture of themselves.


But is it a gimmick, or a sign that elephants are gifted with a particular intelligence?

I searched around the Web, and found an explanation. If you look very carefully, the elephants are attended by one or more people who are standing behind them, hidden to the camera. (Look at the elephant’s front right leg – you can see a person’s (or persons’) leg to both the right and left of it.) The person tugs or touches the elephant in a way that tells it what line to paint where and how. And if you visit the same elephant every day, you’ll see the same painting done again and again and again.

So maybe it is a gimmick, teaching an elephant to paint.  But then again, good luck teaching this little girl to do anything that doesn’t involve eating, pooping or chasing a ball.


This is Sasha’s “are we playing ball yet?” look. It comes in several varieties.

(I’m told that in order to better see my Facebook posts in your feed, you need to “follow” me.)

UPDATE: Reader TJ forwarded a link to Snopes that explains more about how this is done, with some serious prodding from the trainer.  This video shows the prodding in action.  It’s still pretty cool.

Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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  • azlatina

    Elephants are awesome! I have a numbered print by Ruby from the Phx Zoo. She died in 1998 due to complications with pregnancy. The It graces a wall in my living room.

  • Beadis80

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  • Amy Mayers

    Actually, elephants are indeed self-aware (as are dolphins) —

    You can also see video here —

  • Amy Mayers

    There are a few bright spots. An organization called Elephant Aid International is working in Nepal and Thailand to train owners and mahouts in more humane methods of training and management —

    Last year EAI built the first chain-free elephant enclosures in Asia at the National Trust for Nature Conservation in Nepal. Now the government of Nepal (which owns elephants who are used in patrols to prevent wildlife poaching) has asked EAI to convert all 15 of its facilities to chain-free.
    Then EAI will go on to build chain-free enclosures at Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand. Wildlife SOS in India has consulted with EAI and is also building chain-free enclosures. THESE are the types of initiatives that should be supported, not operations that “train” elephants to paint, play games, give rides, etc.

  • Amy Mayers

    I can’t say tehre are no kind mahouts but, again, unfortunately, the training and management of elephants in Asia is based on cruelty.

  • Anonymous

    Unfortunately this is probably completely accurate. Where there’s money there’s cruelty and these paintings are sold to tourists. I can’t imagine the elephants have much of a choice.

  • yyy

    If you look closely during the wide angle shots you will see other mahouts standing on their elephant’s left side and they too are leading their elephant during the process. The close ups show an elephant’s trunk moving a paint brush across a canvas and it appears to be creating a picture, except it is taking commands from its mahout who is out of the shot.

    The training process is called the ‘pajaan’ or ‘crush’ and is centuries old and is used throughout Asia today. It involves taking a 3-year-old baby from its mother’s side and roping it into a small bamboo cage in which it cannot move except to breathe. Of course the elephant fights for its freedom and is beaten, poked with sharp bamboo, starved, dehydrated, and sleep-deprived until it submits to its captors’ demands. The process may take a week, depending on how long it takes to ‘crush’ the elephant’s spirit. About 50% of the babies die from the process and the survivors are left with physical and emotional scars for the rest of their lives.

    The demand for elephant paintings comes mostly from Japan, Europe, and the US, and the motivation from the Thai people is purely financial since a single painting can fetch several thousand dollars. 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!

  • Anonymous

    Your dog is adorable!

  • Anonymous

    I still see people with their Bush/Cheney ’04 stickers. About half are just the residue of attempts to scrape them off.

  • Anonymous

    Elephants aren’t conscious of themselves (as far as we know). There are very few animals that can recognize themselves in a mirror – chimpanzees are one example.
    Like people said, he’s been coached beforehand. He already knows what to paint and is just repeating it on command.
    There’s surely hidden intelligence in animals, but this is a false alarm..

  • KC Jenner

    That reminds me that I found one of my old bupper stickers that I did not put on my car that says BUSH + CHENEY = SCREW.

  • KC Jenner

    I was also going to say that sometimes there is cruelty, but at good mahatma (sp?) [they guy that takes care of the elephant] they have a life bound. The nicer they are to them the longer they can live in peace and share their intelligence with.

  • KC Jenner

    I saw that first video on YouTube a few months ago I think, but I did not see the second one.
    The first one looked like a self-portrait which shows intelligence like chimps that look in a mirror and notice a splotch of paint on their forehead that show they are conscious of themselves. That is what I read a long time ago.

  • Amy Mayers

    Unfortunately, it’s not cool because these elephants all undergo incredibly brutal training to break them. It’s called the phajaan or “crush” — young elephants are taken from their mothers, confined in a stockade barely bigger than themselves and brutalized for 2 weeks until they obey the humans. Elephants are such incredible animals just in and of themselves; I hope they don’t need to perform tricks for people to admire them. You can learn more about elephants in the tourist trade in Asia here —

  • Glenn I

    It is sort of a gimmick in that the elephants aren’t spontaneously creating art here. They are not consciously doing self-portraits. But producing those lines, no matter how “coached”, requires great skill, control, and memory. There is no ape (other than us) that has been able to do this; at least, I’ve found no example in my searches.

    Elephants do create spontaneously, however. I recommend a beautiful book called, “To Whom It May Concern: an investigation into the art of elephants,” by David Gucwa & James Ehmann. One of the authors was a zoo keeper who was tasked with keeping a lone elephant from losing her mind with boredom – elephants are highly social and do not do well in solitude. He discovered that his elephant charge enjoyed drawing. The “pictures” she produced are doodles, but she clearly respected her doodles. When she drew a second squiggle on the same sketch pad – she drew it separately from the first. And when the zoo keeper subsequently watched for similar behavior in other elephants, he discovered others who liked to draw, as they would pick up a stick or a pebble and scratch designs in the dirt, which they would then review.

    Here’s an L.A. Times review of the book:

  • pappyvet

    Good Snopes article…….retinal detachment surgery !? Damn John! I can support just about anything but gay kickboxing ? I will watch my comments from now on . [good natured giggle]

  • Anyone that kills an Elephant should go to jail for life.

  • “And if you visit the same elephant every day, you’ll see the same painting done again and again and again.” Painting the GOP with an accurate brush!

  • Very interesting, thx!

  • tjfxh
  • pappyvet

    Good stuff John. You could tug on my leg all day and I still couldn’t paint that well. ;]

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