Is Elephant Painting Cruel?

Elephants cannot paint pictures without the help of trainers. But is this activity ethical?

Elephant painting on easel

Eloy Rodriguez / Getty Images

Have you ever seen one of the many videos of an elephant grabbing a paintbrush, dipping it in paint, and producing a painting similar to something a 5-year-old could create?

The intelligence of elephants is comparable to primates. Meanwhile, their dexterous trunks allow them to use tools to draw on paper. The distinction, however, lies in whether the elephant is painting on a whim or has been trained to do so. As you probably have guessed, the latter is most often the case.

The question that naturally follows is: Is elephant painting an ethical, entertaining act, or does it fall under the category of cruelty?

Elephant Training Methods

While watching an elephant paint is an amazing sight, we can't help but wonder whether the training methods and results reflect animal cruelty.

A 2014 study on four captive Asian elephants at the Melbourne Zoo in Australia sought to identify stress-related behaviors around the activity of painting. While the authors found that the elephants had a neutral response to painting—not stressful, nor enriching—it seemed that when an elephant was not selected to paint, it displayed non-interactive behavior. This is seen as a possible signal of stress in the animals.

In addition, PETA has cited several American zoos that use harmful training methods to get elephants to paint, perform tricks, play instruments, and more. Not every zoo that organizes elephant painting uses aggression to encourage the elephants. However, PETA argues that animal sanctuaries should not force animals to do tricks at all, whether sustainable training is ensured or not.

Activist organizations like the Elephant Asia Rescue and Survival Foundation (EARS) warn that elephants can undergo extreme discomfort in the training process. Repeated discomfort can detract from their quality of life, especially when they are forced to paint the same picture over and over. Critics point out that videos of painting elephants often feature trainers standing nearby with bullhooks in their hands—evidence of the physical pain that's used to teach them such tricks.

Furthermore, many of the painting elephants are very young, at an age where they should still be with their mothers. It raises questions about what they're doing in captivity to begin with, and whether there's a chance they were captured for the express purpose of performing, or if they could somehow be rehabilitated for a return to the wild, instead of being used for entertainment.

Ethical Elephant Training

Fortunately, not all elephants are taught to paint to entertain tourists or for monetary gain. The nonprofit Asian Elephant Art & Conservation Project was established in 1998 by two artists who use the elephant-created art to benefit elephants in human care as well as those in the wild.

According to the project's website, the training process is stimulating and based on positive reinforcement, and part of the group's mission is to educate elephant trainers about how to safely and carefully train domesticated elephants. The result is a collection of different paintings that showcase individual elephants' artistic styles.

Funds gained from selling the paintings go to local communities that rely on elephants for their value in tourism, as well as conservation agencies that reintroduce elephants into the wild and to fight illegal poaching in Southeast Asia.

Still Concerning

It is difficult to support any kind of trained behavior that differs greatly from a wild animal's natural tendencies. The role of a sanctuary, ideally, is to allow an animal to live as close to its normal life as possible, perhaps with an eye to returning the animal to the wild; teaching them to paint does not seem to align with that goal, particularly if it's not a learned behavior that the animal would be inclined to do independently.

As humans, we should question our tendency to anthropomorphize animals and derive pleasure from watching it. What entertains and delights us may in fact be a source of great indignity and pain to the animal itself.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Can you train an elephant humanely?

    Nonprofits like the Asian Elephant Art & Conservation Project show that domestic elephants can be trained using positive reinforcement, not torture methods. However, many animal rights advocates are against all use of animals by humans—they might argue that using elephants for art is wrong.

  • How do you know whether an elephant painting has been made ethically?

    If you're considering buying art made by an elephant, make sure you do your research on the organization behind it to make sure the elephants are treated well. Only source elephant art from a 501(c) nonprofit organization.

View Article Sources
  1. English, Megan et al. “Is painting by elephants in zoos as enriching as we are led to believe?.” PeerJ vol. 2 e471. 1 Jul. 2014, doi:10.7717/peerj.471