Hey, culture vultures, check out the painting elephants in Indianapolis

Horton hears a Hoosier: Tombi, a 33-year-old African elephant, tries her, uh, hand at art. She's one of three painting pachyderms at the Indianapolis Zoo.
Horton hears a Hoosier: Tombi, a 33-year-old African elephant, tries her, uh, hand at art. She's one of three painting pachyderms at the Indianapolis Zoo. (Andrea Sachs/The Washington Post)
By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 9, 2010

No. 120, as the painter was called, demonstrated a technique reminiscent of Jackson Pollock -- or a messy preschooler. With the canvas on the floor, she walked across the clean white surface, leaving smudges of blue, purple and black. Like most artists, she was full of eccentricities. She painted with her feet and frequently interrupted her session to chase her sister, named No. 121 and also a penguin.

The rockhopper penguins are the latest paint-pushers to join the Indianapolis Zoo's animal arts program, which debuted last spring with elephants and expanded this year to include penguins and sea lions. The activity removes the facility's usual barriers, allowing guests to mingle with the Picassos of the wild kingdom while granting the animals a break from their in-captivity routines.

"It's great enrichment for the animals," said zoo educator Sonya Schkabla, "and it gives people something rare to keep, a memory of their interaction with that animal."

Watching animals climb, swim, pace, eat and nap -- in other words, be themselves -- isn't enough anymore. Now, at a few Indianapolis venues, we can see them twirl like aquatic dancers, or paint like Old Masters, or, at the very least, behave like puppies, all cute and cuddly in our arms. For their part, the institutions gain a captivated audience whose heads they can fill with information about the wildlife and about their conservation efforts.

"These are not skills and talents they use in the wild," said Schkabla of the animal artistes, "but the program helps us get the word out that we need to keep these animals alive."

* * *

At Conner Prairie, a living history museum outside Indianapolis, the golden rule is, "Please touch the animals."

"We're a petting zoo," said Enzo Ferroli, a guide in the Animal Encounters area, "but we sneak in a little history and science. We like to tie it all together."

The former 1823 homestead of businessman William Conner comprises several re-created historical areas (complete with re-enactor residents) that chronicle Conner's life as well as 19th-century Indiana. Animals roam higgledy-piggledy. Oxen labor down a dirt path, cows graze in enclosed pastures and chickens cluck underfoot. In the spacious barn, visitors can hold fuzzy chicks, scratch behind the ears of mama goats and stalk sheep who behave surprisingly like sheep, nervously looking around for their flock.

Yet the barnyard menagerie here differs from the usual farm stock: The animals are, as much as possible, historically accurate to Conner's time. "We have to prove that they are right for their time period," said livestock manager Kevyn Miller, who researches the animals' heritage before introducing them to the museum. The English longhorn cattle breed, for instance, dates from the late 1700s to the Civil War; shorthorn cattle replaced them in popularity in the early 1800s, before being phased out by Holstein and Jersey cows.

Inside the wooden structure, the dominant time period is the present, as most people care more about snuggling with the animals than about tracing their lineage. But don't dismiss the cow as just some moo on Old MacDonald's farm.

Miller explained that the English longhorn -- not to be confused with the Texas branch -- is nearly extinct. Even though Conner Prairie owns three of them, only nine females and six males exist in the country, too few to make the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy's Rare Breeds list. Knowing this, I looked afresh at the sweet red calf with the white skunk stripe down his back. He was dozing peacefully in the hay, as if he hadn't a care in the world.

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