THOSE STRIKING pictures of charging rhinos and elephants and monkeys and tiny shrews at the Museum of Natural History have a story of their own.

Not only are they the work of Caroline Thorington, a widely known printmaker who teaches at Montgomery College, but they are pages from her life. The brilliant little etching of two camouflaged horned toads, for instance: She had them in her kitchen and sketched them while waiting for the coffee to perk. The shrew lived in a box close by ("we fed her dry dog food; she loved it"), and the red squirrel was a neighborhood visitor.

The show of 53 pictures on the second-floor rotunda will be exhibited through Dec. 19.

In the '70s, Thorington spent part of each year with her biologist husband, Richard, on Barro Colorado Island, Panama, studying a troupe of wild spider monkeys. She was fascinated by their looping movements, the breathtaking grace of their long limbs.

"At first, I was making photographs as records for my husband," she said, "but after a while I said, 'Hey, these are neat things going on,' and I used up the end of the roll doing pictures for myself, so I'd have a fresh roll in case things started to happen for Richard. From there, I began to draw them. I love motion, anything animate."

From the photos and sketches she moved to lithographs done in a pen-wash style, both black-and-white and color. The show has both versions of her portrait of a margay, a spotted cat, trying to make itself disappear into jungle foliage. It disappears quite nicely, whether in color or not.

Thorington earned her MFA at George Washington University, studied in Munich on an exchange fellowship ("I learned to etch in German and when I got back I had to learn the terms all over again in English") and has won some national awards.

Last year, she went to Venezuela with a Smithsonian expedition, collecting another batch of animals. The portraits are zoologically accurate but by no means dry specimens. They slink and swoop, huddle and rampage. They bristle with life.

And charm: A gaggle of field mice peer fearfully out of a circular etching; a pair of spider monkeys, Blackie and Joy, stare incuriously at the world as they swing casually entwined in each other among the branches; a tamandua looks a little embarrassed that we have guessed its name.

Some pictures are simply studies of light and shadow on a tropical pond or a wintery beach. Others are family snapshots of a sort, like "The Birthday Party," which wasn't a birthday party at all, but just a silly afternoon when the artist's children were playing with some party favors. So their mother drew them, included a window with vines growing through it that she had seen at a friend's house, and then added a monkey she knew in Venezuela, leaping mischievously through the window.

"They were just memories I had, and I put them together," Thorington said. It works.

What delights her most is to catch the sense of movement in an animal, especially a wild one, who won't hold still but will be gone in another second, believing himself free, unaware that he has been captured on paper in his beautiful simplicity.