Our friend Kimber has been asked this before: Why did you teach a black rhinoceros to paint?
The obvious answer is that the San Antonio Zoo, where she worked as a volunteer, asked her to do so. She then explains why: "When you have animals in captivity, they tend to get bored with the same surroundings and routine every day. Boredom can lead to to a great deal of stress for the animal. In order to keep the animal from getting too stressed out, keepers will introduce different things for the animal to play with, smell or eat in order to break up their monotonous lifestyle. For rhinos, it's sometimes hard to come up with things because they are such large animals. Much of what could be put in their enclosure would probably either be smashed or eaten. So you have to be creative."
In December 1999 Kimber began giving painting lessons to Herbie, a black rhino at the zoo who was then seven years old. I thought about Kimber and Herbie this week when I stumbled upon the YouTube video below of an elephant named Paya from the Maesa Elephant Camp in Chiang Mai, Thailand, painting what appears to be a remarkable self portrait:
The video seems too amazing to be true, but it is not a fake, according to the veteran Internet-fraud debunkers at hoax-slayer.com. In fact, Paya is but one of a number of pachyderms who have been taught to paint as part of the non-profit Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project, which sells elephant-created artworks to raise funds to protect elephants in the wild.
The phrase "taught to paint" raises the hackles of some critics. They argue that elephants such as Paya are not real artists; the animals merely learn to take particular brushstrokes in response to commands from humans. In Paya's case those strokes add up to a painting of an elephant. Many other elephants, however, paint in a more freestyle form, producing modern-looking, non-representational pieces. In any case, the point is to add variety to their days and study how they learn, not to prove that the animals deserve scholarships to the Yale School of Art.
In working with Herbie, whom she describes as very intelligent, Kimber says she built on commands he had already been taught. If she said "target," he would touch a designated spot with his mouth. She would then "bridge" him by blowing a whistle to let him know he'd done the right thing, and reward him with a piece of fruit or lots of attention. "Although rhino skin is rough and thick, the skin is still very sensitive, so Herbie [enjoyed] being rubbed or brushed," she says.
Kimber began her painting instruction by teaching Herbie colors and shapes. "I made a triangle, circle and square out of different colored foam board—red, green, blue and yellow," she says. "I then taught Herbie to 'target' onto the correct color and shape by saying, for example, 'blue circle,' and then bridging and rewarding him if he touched the correct shape and color with his lip. He got to be pretty good—a lot of times over 80 percent correct.
"Some people said I was just training him to do a trick," Kimber continues. " However, it's not any different from when you teach a human child their colors and shapes."
Kimber tried putting a paint brush in Herbie's mouth, but he kept trying to eat it, she says. She decided to try his upper lip instead. It's an unusual lip, one that is linked to a black rhino's diet and even its name.
The terms "white rhino" and "black rhino" have nothing to do with color. The "white" in white rhino is a mistranslation of a Dutch word, wijd, meaning "wide," and refers to the shape of that rhino species' broad upper lip. By contrast, the black rhino (which is called black simply to differentiate it from the white rhino) has evolved a pointed, "prehensile" upper lip that he can use to pull leaves and twigs off bushes and trees for food (white rhinos can't do that and feed on grasses).
(The word prehensile describes a body part—a monkey's tail, a gorilla's feet, a human being's hands, a giraffe's tongue or an elephant's trunk, for example—that is able to grasp or hold something. The word is NOT a combination of pre and hensile, so it does NOT mean "before hensile." It comes from a Latin word, prehendere, meaning "to grasp.")
Kimber taught Herbie to dip his upper lip in child-safe acrylic paint. "He chose his paints out of a muffin tin," she says. "And, yes, HE chose the colors." When creating an image, Kimber says, Herbie "moved his lip around just like he was finger painting." His works were abstract. But beautiful.
Kimber is the first to point out that animals such as Herbie deserve "wide open spaces to roam" rather than a life of confinement and occasional artistic recreation. But life in the wild has become particularly dangerous for black rhinos, who reside only in Africa (rhinos used to roam all the northern continents) and are critically endangered. The population declined by 96 percent between 1970 and 1992, to a few thousand. The causes were habitat loss and mass murder by poachers eager to sell the rhinos' horns for use in making handles for ceremonial Middle Eastern daggers and as expensive sexual boosters in Chinese medicine.
Just for the record, rhino horns are composed primarily of keratin, the same protein that makes up human fingernails and toenails. Keratin has been found to have no medicinal value.
Though black rhinos in captivity often live into their 40s, Herbie died last October at age 18. Kimber hopes that he raised awareness of the plight of black rhinos. He certainly made an indelible impression on her. As she noted in an article she wrote some years ago for Critter magazine, "I've come to appreciate and love this huge animal that has the strength to turn over cars yet at the same time is gentle and intelligent enough to create a beautiful piece of art."
Answer to last Puzzler:
How many of Europe's 50 countries and sovereign states can you name? Here's the full list:
Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Malta, Moldova, Monaco, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, San Marino, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, Vatican City.
The European country with the longest coastline? That would be Norway.
A nature riddle: I rise only once a year. I run but can't walk. When I get real hot, I concentrate better and people like me more. What am I?
George Steller, the German-born naturalist for whom the Steller's jay, the Steller's sea lion, the Steller's eider and other species were named, would have turned 302 years old on Thursday.
Steller was a botanist, zoologist, physician and adventurer. He spent most of his adult life in Russia and Alaska, and was a survivor of the doomed expedition on which Danish navigator Vitus Bering and half the crew died following a shipwreck in what is now called the Bering Sea. Three decades after Steller identified what is now known as the Steller's sea cow in 1741, that large, gentle, seaweed-eating animal was hunted to extinction for its skin, blubber and veal-like meat.
John Herschel, the eminent English astronomer, mathematician and chemist whose many accomplishments included helping to shape the theory of evolution, coining the term photographic negative and naming a total of 11 moons of Saturn and Uranus, would have turned 219 years old on Monday. Herschel's ideas on the evolution of language and animals influenced Charles Darwin, who stopped to visit him when the HMS Beagle passed South Africa (where Herschel was living) in 1836 en route home from the Galapagos Islands. Herschel and his artistic wife, Margaret, also made beautiful botanical illustrations; he used a "camera lucida," a device that projects the image that is to be drawn, in order to accurately outline the plants. Margaret then did the illustrations.
James Herriott, the veterinary surgeon and author of All Creatures Great and Small, would have been 95 on Thursday. His real name was Alf Wright and he worked solely as a vet until age 50, when his wife urged him to finally pursue his dream of writing a book. A few years later, using the pseudonym James Herriott (a name he borrowed from a goalkeeper who played for a British soccer team), he began publishing semi-autobiographical novels about the experiences of a country veterinarian. The first two of those were republished as the best-selling All Creatures Great and Small, which became a BBC television series and spawned a number of other animal-themed books, including Let Sleeping Vets Lie and James Herriott's Favourite Dog Stories.
Andre Michaux, the French explorer and botanist who introduced numerous plant species to America, including the crepe myrtle, ginkgo, tea-olive and Christmas Camellia, would have been 265 today. His destiny was changed when his wife, the only love of his life, died less than a year into their marriage. Steered into studying botany to escape his grief, Michaux (who never remarried) ended up traveling the world and spending much of his adult life in America, where he set up botanical gardens in North Charleston, S.C., and Bergen, N.J.