Elephant paints an elephant

In this video, an elephant is led to an easel, picks up a paintbrush, and paints a picture of an elephant holding a flower. Or at least, that's what appears to happen -- there are lots of cuts in the video and it's hard to say what's really going on. Fake or real, it's a great way to spend 8 minutes. Link

See also: Elephant artists


  1. I’m assuming this zoo trains the elephants to paint these scenes, but either way, that’s some good eye-trunk coordination.

  2. The elephant painted the picture. Did you see the delicate way Mr Elephant moved his brush? I’m going to go ahead and believe that the elephant is a wise and expressive creature and should be treated as such. A lot like how we should treat the Great Apes, whales, dolphins etc…maybe even each other.

  3. Well I guess the elephants would prefer doing this to dragging logs around. But is it a trick like a seal balancing a ball on it’s nose, or a form of expression like teaching a chimpanzee sign language?

    My guess is that if was artistic expression, the elephant would prefer to have a cute elephant model to pose for the drawing…

  4. Is it real? Is it fake? Is it still considered a “fake” if the elephant has been conditioned to paint it? On the other hand, the video itself could be a complete fabrication.

    I love it!!

    It’s also fun to dive into the comments to see the gut-reaction of folks (re: the veracity of the vid) -and- see how long it takes for any opposition to chime in.

    This one is hitting all the buttons. I think it may be only the 3rd or 4th time I can recall that happening.

    In any case, this entry is by far now my favorite such example. Regardless — it’s a fine way to spend 8 1/2 minutes.

    Thanks for the link !!

  5. I don’t see what the big deal is I can paint better then that and people are never awestruck

  6. Wow. Looks real to me. The way his/her trunk “floats” about the painting as s/he tries to put the brush right where s/he wants it. Too cool. And that s/he can so exactly trace over lines s/he already painted. Just … wow.

  7. I think this video, while totally amazing, is more a case of an elephant being trained to reproduce the brushstrokes rather than express itself artistically. It’s essentially the same as programming a robot to paint the picture in that respect.

    Although I think elephants are intelligent enough to recognize a picture of an elephant, or even a flower. In this case, I wouldn’t be surprised if after reproducing hundreds of paintings this way, the elephant grew to recognize that the strokes it was taught to do reproduce an image of an elephant. The image of the final outcome in the elephant’s mind is probably one thing that helps it to remember the brushstrokes in order. I think that on some level, the elephant understands it is creating a representation, unlike a robot would.

    But even after being trained to paint this picture, I doubt the elephant gained an ability to express itself creatively– to draw, for example, a group of three elephants together, or a mother and a baby elephant together.

  8. Whether trained or not, that elephant has to be able to do several things in order to accomplish the painting: he/she is counting (four legs), observing and translating images in her minds eye to the canvas. I’ve seen elephants paint abstract pictures ( a la Pollack ) before ,but never realistic renditions of objects (elephant and flower ). This elephant is truly self-aware and conscious in the manner we are. I wonder if she “knows” the crowd was supporting her with their clapping. Remarkable!

  9. I think it is hardly fair that now even animals are better artists than me.

    @Doktor Tchock – rofl

  10. This is the result of training and not an original composition, as is honestly noted at the site that sells the paintings:
    “Just for clarification, with these realistic figural works, the elephant is still the only one making the marks on the paper but the paintings are learned series of brushstrokes not Hong painting a still life on her own.”

  11. Funny how this “Is it Real/Photoshop” question has really gotten out of hand. I saw this headline and immediately clicked to see if they even mentioned the source.

    Just to help anyone wondering about the authenticity of these paintings, I actually own one myself. Where did I buy it? Chiang Mai, the Northern jungle city of Thailand. In case anyone wants some more “proof”, here’s a link to some other pictures from the same camp where they make the paintings.


    Oh and by the way, my painting is an elephant painting an elephant, and the paper is made of elephant dung. How elephant is that?

  12. Dude makes marks and forms near identical to various ‘cave painting’ 25 thousand year ago.
    Looks pretty good real to me; the breaks are when the applicator needs a refresh of media.

  13. I don’t think it is fake at all. The cuts are there so we don’t have to sit through the brush being dipped again.

  14. Elephants suck at photoshop.

    A common misconception thanks to the myth perpetuating their fear of mice. I work with a couple of elephants who are wizards with Photoshop.

    Though, come to think of it, I’ve only every seen them use drawing tables.

  15. Does it really matter if the elephant was trained to paint that figure or not? It *knows* what it’s trying to do, just look at the way if fixes lines that are not quite right.

    So the elephant didn’t create that picture… I know many people who can’t draw anything by themselves either, or even copy drawings half as well as that elephant does.

    The fact is that they have a pretty decent measure of intelligence and deserve our respect, and I pity the fools who deny it.

  16. Elephantastic! Fascinating how precisely and diligently the elephant is working; I hope this is due to a love for tasty treats or maybe even enjoyment of painting, rather than fear of punishment.

    he/she is counting (four legs)

    The video doesn’t demonstrate that, just as a video of a toddler correctly singing all 32 notes of Frère Jacques doesn’t demonstrate that the child can count to 32. Since the animal is just executing learned strokes rather than expressing some sort of artistic vision, I doubt it even knows what it’s painting, let alone know where the individual legs would be found.

    However, I guess it is possible to teach an elephant that it will get a banana when it places exactly four, no more no less, not three, not five or six, holy hand grenades into a basket. (Four shall be the number of the counting. Five thou shall not count, nor thou shall count to three unless thou shall proceed to four. Six is right out.)

    Speaking of counting … Cory, the “lots of cuts” you’ve seen are two small gaps in the video. May I assume you’d misplaced your eyeglasses and tried a couple of wine glasses instead? Not that I’m diagreeing, though, it is kind of hard to see what’s really going on. Might be three gorillas in a rubber suit.

    observing and translating images in her minds eye to the canvas

    The video doesn’t demonstrate that either, as others have pointed out already.

    This elephant is truly self-aware and conscious in the manner we are.

    Neither can this be observed. You can train an industrial robot arm to make such a picture. (Some can be programmed by grabbing the business end and moving it around, as opposed to using computer code.) And it’s obvious that industrial robot arms are not self-aware, let alone conscious in the manner we are.

    Elephants suck at photoshop.

    They’re OK as freelancers; just don’t pay them by the hour. They’re a bit slow. You see, they can’t use most of the keyboard shortcuts.

  17. It actually sort of makes sense. Animals essentially are only subconscious, and without a consciousness. In short, they can’t reason, or speak, or really understand abstract things. However, as with our own subconscious, they record everything, and have incredible memory. When they “learn” things, it tends to be very visual, and a sort of stimulus-reaction type deal. With that said, the elephant would essentially have photographic memory(people with this type of memory are litterally conscious, but many cases have trouble understanding concepts and creating new ones).

    Sort of like, for us to progress, our brain had to selectively empty out some memories, so we can create out own. Think back to cave drawings. This is essentially what the elepahnt could be doing. Once he is trained in how the paint works(and if this is real, I doubt every elephant has this kind of dexterity) it could do this itself.

    However, with that said, I still think it’s fake. I am not an expert in elephant movement, but there is something that just looks too detailed, and precise about it(however, that could be how they really are, I don’t really know).

    Mainly, right when it’s done drawing that long line down, completing the sillouhette, and the trunk pulls away, it looks a little wierd. Apart from that, this doesn’t really seem impossible. I don’t see why someone would want to fake it either.

  18. The elephant probably understands that she is painting an elephant with a flower in its trunk, even if she doesn’t yet know how to draw other things.

    It’s like kids learning to draw cartoons by reading a step-by-step guide somewhere. The elephant eventually got to where she could draw this one thing from memory, without guidance. If your four or five year old followed a guide and figured out how to draw, say, a duck, would you think, “oh, that’s nice, but the kid wasn’t thinking; just imitating?”

    I’d say the elephant’s effort is pretty good, even if it doesn’t have all the richness that a spontaneous representational painting would have.

  19. Human children, as well as adults, are also trained how to paint, and are rewarded for it. Whether or not the elephant is truly enjoying itself or is emotionally connected to the activity of painting seems to be a secondary issue. The primary issue is that an elephant has learned, via some sort of reward and punishment system – to use tools to create an image. Remember that everything we do, too, is firmly enmeshed within a reward and punishment system. To flatter ourselves while viewing this is a grave error.

    I’m just glad that people are beginning to discover their humble, relative place among the animals, that we’re actually not alone here on Earth, that we’re not surrounded by a bunch of stupid life that we’re somehow obligated to exploit.

    In recent years we’ve discovered that chimps have superior short term memories. We’ve discovered that lots of animals enjoy getting high (lemurs with millipedes is a fun example). We’ve seen a dog that’s obsessed with skateboarding. We’ve seen how mice laugh when tickled. We’ve seen how some male birds woo females with what can easily be called world-class installation art. And that’s just the beginning of what I hope will be a landslide of similar knowledge that can only improve the condition of life on this planet for all species.

  20. I’ve actually seen elephants painting at the Nong Nooch Tropical Gardens in Thailand last year. The elephants there have been trained to perform many acts for the tourists, playing football and throwing oversized darts at a target, riding giant tricycles and twirling hula hoops. Some of the things they can do were amazing. Towards the end of the show they do a painting display, and pictures of trees and flowers are painted directly onto t-shirts which are offered up for immediate sale. (They also have them in the gift shop, but I always wonder if those are knocked out by humans for maximum speed and profit.)

    The most interesting thing I noticed, was that there was a baby elephant in the group that produced a picture that was much less artistically refined than that of the adult elephants. The adults produced really good trees and bunches of flowers with stippled colour effects, all from memory. Their level of skill would be that of a good 12 year old human, the baby’s picture was similar to that of child of 6 years. The way they layered the colours was impressive though, I can easily see that given more time and training they could produce some really excellent work. Talented creatures, elephants.

    I also got kissed by an Orang-utan at that place as well, but that is another story entirely.

  21. I would guess it realizes it’s painting an elephant, but it’s hard to be sure. It would be interesting to try to test this–for example, seeing if the elephant could match photos of elephants in different poses with line drawing in the same poses, or whether it could point to the right part of a line drawing when some part of a real elephant’s body in front of it was pointed to by a trainer.

    Speaking of smart animals, I definitely recommend checking out the segment from a Scientific American Frontiers program called “Entertaining Parrots” which you can find here (just scroll dow to the segment and click ‘play video’ to watch)

  22. Interesting argument that the elephant is just robotically copying what it sees. Many artists working in a non-representational style would say that about humans painting representationally. When the elephants paint abstractly, commenters argue that they’re just daubing paint randomly.

    So if the elephant paints abstractly, it’s a circus trick. And if the elephant paints something recognizable, it’s a circus trick. That’s some keen analysis there. But then humans are just trained to think robotically. You could scarcely call it ‘real’ intelligence.

  23. Antinous wrote:
    Interesting argument that the elephant is just robotically copying what it sees.

    I don’t think that’s what people were suggesting–rather, they were suggesting that the elephant might have learned to make a certain pattern of strokes without any understanding that they were supposed to represent something it could see in the real world (i.e. an elephant), sort of a like a human learning to write Chinese symbols in calligraphy with no understanding of Chinese. Like I said above, I think it would be possible to test whether the elephant understands the connection between these line drawings and other elephants it sees in the real world.

  24. the elephant might have learned to make a certain pattern of strokes without any understanding that they were supposed to represent something it could see in the real world

    I’m guessing that you don’t have a cat. Some animals are pretty good at recognizing stylized versions of other animals.

  25. @ #12:

    I’m not sure it’s really so important. Human beings (hairless monkeys) are first trained to make representative art. They may realize that they’re painting a human being, but unless they’ve been trained to do so, they wouldn’t be able to draw a picture of a human with a baby human.

    It may be roughly the same as teaching a robot to paint a picture of a robot, but because the elephant has the capacity to think independently, it is also quite a lot like teaching a human to paint a human. And in my opinion, this does not mean that the animal in question isn’t learning to express itself creatively. Plus, it might not take “hundreds” of instances of this happening for the elephant to realize that it’s painting an elephant, although our species chauvinism prevents us from believing it could do so more quickly.

    Go elephant!

  26. “…sort of a like a human learning to write Chinese symbols in calligraphy with no understanding of Chinese.”

    Regardless of whether or not this human understood what the symbols meant, not just anyone can recreate aesthetically pleasing representations of Chinese symbols. Try it, it’s hard. You have to have at least a little bit of skill to pull it off.

    And with some humans, all the training in the world can’t help their rubbish drawing skills.

    Presumably only some elephants can become this skillful at painting, which makes me think, that even if it is a learned skill (which all skills are!) then the elephant would have to have some aptitude for the skill to begin with.

    Anyway, even if the whole video is faked, that painting will sell for hundreds of dollars which will go back to the complex that looks after all these abused, orphaned, abandoned and injured elephants.

    Which is just as good.

  27. #31 posted by Metacore

    “It actually sort of makes sense. Animals essentially are only subconscious, and without a consciousness. In short, they can’t reason, or speak, or really understand abstract things.”

    Interesting theory you have there, too bad it’s completely false, but I guess it makes you feel better. The number of experiments that have shown higher level functioning in animals are almost too many to list. Chimps, gorillas, dolphins and even ravens have all demonstrated high level reasoning abilities. Abstract symbolic reasoning? yup. Language use beyond simple calls and signals? yup.

    No one knows if animals have a subjective conscious experience or not. But then I don’t really know that about other people either. Then again, as far as I know I’m the only conscious entity in this universe and the rest of you are all simulacra. The idea that you all are anything other than fancy Chinese Rooms is just this theory I have.

    I don’t think these elephants know much about what they are doing beyond that they get a treat for their performance.

  28. This is most definitely “trained” behavior… Factory art, but done by animals.

    If you watch the various other elephant art videos online, you’ll see that the elephants paint the EXACT same drawing over and over and over. It’s very impressive training, but it’s not art, and I doubt the elephant is aware of what it’s drawn… The representational images are also very different from the art that elephants create when left to their own devices.

  29. Animal abuse, this animal should be playing in mud with other elephants, not perfoming to please tourist

  30. Antinous wrote:
    I’m guessing that you don’t have a cat. Some animals are pretty good at recognizing stylized versions of other animals.

    I’ve had a number of cats, I’ve never seen any sign that they recognize line drawings–have you? If not, what are you talking about here?

  31. Is that a Ganesha-elf hybrid? Cuz those ears are just wrong. I was hoping when I saw the title of that link that it would be Drama Elephant like Drama Prairie Dog.

  32. Antinous wrote:
    Fie on you for not exposing your pets to art. What kind of parent are you?

    Are you being serious or kidding? If serious, are you saying your cats will react differently to stylized line drawings (non-animated, of course) depending on what they depict?

  33. Jesse M – Really, ya know, you shouldn’t depend on others quite so much. Also, Google is your friend. Quick google of “cat intelligence” got me:

    How Intelligent Are Cats?

    “So do cats think? They don’t think in the human sense of the term, but (apart from some hard-wired reflexes) they perform mental processing on incoming information and make decisions on how to act. They have an internal representation of the physical world, they comprehend certain physical laws (that objects don’t cease to exist when out of sight), they have a good sense of time, they can identify other cats, a number of humans and a range of objects. These are the sort of things most humans do without conscious effort.”

    “Just because a cat is considered (by classical science) not self-aware, does not make it non-intelligent. Feline intelligence is geared to the cat’s ecological niche and is constrained by physical limitations and by innate behaviours. Those innate behaviours are hard-wired into the brain for survival reasons and to free up thinking areas of the brain.”

    Interesting stuff even if cats aren’t the brightest in the world. I bet elephants are even smarter.

  34. Noen:
    Jesse M – Really, ya know, you shouldn’t depend on others quite so much. Also, Google is your friend.

    What do you mean? The page you googled says nothing about whether cats recognize stylized line drawings, which was all that I was asking Antinous about, I wasn’t denying that cats have some form of consciousness or that they “have an internal representation of the physical world”. I wouldn’t be surprised if even humans who are from hunter-gatherer cultures that don’t have line drawings might be unable to recognize what stylized drawings were supposed to represent without some training.

  35. Watch the elephant paint. Then read the comments posted here. Then ask yourself which species is more intelligent and expressive.

  36. In regards to the fake question…as has been noted above, this is very common in Chiang Mai, Thailand and people can purchase the paintings. I’m in Bangkok at the moment and there are tons of offers to visit those places.

    I’d have no doubt that they enjoy the interaction and the praise…not so sure about being made drunk like I saw the other night here…

    But they sure like water!

  37. This is totally unfair!

    The elephant paints better than I do. Next they’ll be demanding equal rights. We have to nip this in the bud.


  38. I unfortunately found myself at one of these performances a month ago in Thailand when I was attending a conference. I found it really quite cruel. The reason for the elephants prowess with the paint brush probably has more to do with the fact that they get a jab to the head with a metal spike if they don’t do what they are told. The elephants I saw that weren’t performing were tied up on chains often only 1-2 feed long, with baby elephants constantly swinging their heads in a deranged fashion.

    Whilst it might be amusing to see elephants ‘behaving like us’ eliciting this behavior seems to involve a high degree of cruelty. I’d suggest people find other ways to amuse themselves that are more respectful to these quite amazing animals.

  39. As an elephant in the battlefield withstands the arrows shot from a bow, even so will I endure abuse; verily most people are undisciplined.

    They lead the trained (horses or elephants) to an assembly. The king mounts the trained animal. Best among men are the trained who endure abuse.

    Excellent are trained mules, so are thorough-bred horses of Sindh and noble tusked elephants; but far better is he who has trained himself.

    Surely never by those vehicles would one go to the untrodden land (Nibbana), as does one who is controlled through his subdued and well-trained self.

    The elephant is not satisfied with the food in luxurious places. It longs to go back to the jungle among its relations.

    The man who is lazy and a glutton, who eats large meals and rolls in his sleep like a pig which is fed in the sty is reborn again and again.

    Formerly this mind wandered about where it liked, wherever it willed, as it pleased; today, with wisdom (meditation) I shall control it as a mahout controls an elephant in rut.

    Take delight in heedfulness. Guard your mind well. Draw yourselves out of the evil way just as the elephant sunk in the mud draws himself out.

    Should one find a good companion to walk with and who is steadfast and upright, one should walk with him with joy so as to overcome all dangers.

    If no such companion is found; it is better to travel alone like a king who has left his kingdom, or an elephant which has left its companions.

    It is better to live alone; there is no fellowship with a fool. Let one live alone committing no evil, being carefree, like a Matanga elephant (roaming at will) in the forest.

    When need arises, pleasant (is it to have) friends. Pleasant is it to be content with just this and that. Pleasant is merit when life is at an end. Pleasant is the shunning of all ill.

    Pleasant in this world is ministering to mother. Ministering to father too is pleasant in this world. Pleasant is ministering to ascetics. Pleasant too is ministering to the Noble Ones.

    Pleasant is virtue (continued) until old age. Pleasant is steadfast confidence. Pleasant is the attainment of wisdom. Pleasant is it to do no evil.

  40. ANDL paints a different picture, so to speak, than I had imagined. A spike in the head is over the line in terms of ethics and morality. Even if we allow for the fact that the people in Thailand have harder lives than we do, and need the income desperately, we need to condemn this mistreatment.

    It may well be that the “Root cause” of the animal mistreatment is human poverty; But that doesn’t mean we have to solve all the worlds problems before we stop abusing animals.

  41. Interesting argument that the elephant is just robotically copying what it sees.

    As Jesse already pointed out, there was a misunderstanding here. Being able to make a good copy of what you see in such a highly stylised way would be a sign of high intelligence and tremendous skill. There is no robot (yet) that could do this, and I’m sure there is no animal that could do it. The cognitive skills of apes are roughly comparable to those of human toddlers; I guess a chimp might enjoy abstract painting and might also be able to translate the sight of a physical object into a crude painted representation. But it would never look as good as these elephant paintings; the elephants aren’t copying what they see, but repeating strokes they were trained to perform, independently of what the picture is supposed to represent. It’s a completely different story.

    So if the elephant paints abstractly, it’s a circus trick. And if the elephant paints something recognizable, it’s a circus trick.

    When it’s a performance the elephant was explicitely trained to do for the entertainment of spectators, it’s a circus trick no matter what. There’s a big difference between recognizable to humans and recognizable to elephants. To the ‘artist’ featured here, the painting shown above is abstract.

    Some animals are pretty good at recognizing stylized versions of other animals.

    Which enables them to create such art themselves in about the same way in which being able to recognize water taps makes you a plumber.

  42. Call me a downer but I can’t help but think the money this would generate for the locals would be incentive enough to “harshly train” those elephants into painting like that…

  43. Umm, what’s the big deal? What else is he going to paint but an elephant? Now, if we got “Still Life with Peanuts”…

  44. ITS A FAKE!

    If you look at the videos you will notice there is always a handler (often hiding from the camera) firmly attatched to the elephant, probably directing (indirectly) the brush movement. Show me a video of an elephant doing this entirely on its own.


  45. So what if the elephant *was* trained to do it?

    To me, that’s no different from humans going to art/painting/pottery class. Someone had to teach them how to use the tools. If a person creates an awesome piece of art, it doesn’t make it any less beautiful just because someone else taught him/her how to use a pencil or paintbrush. It’s still that person’s individual expression. To see this coming from an elephant is both fascinating and lovely.

    I think it’s neat.

  46. #64 Gareth

    Why not just ask all the people on this thread who have witnessed these performances (2 or 3 at least, on this thread alone) rather than relying on your, kinda feeble, detective work.

    And, if you genuinely think these, quite dextrous, paintings were done by the trainer nudging the tusk (or telepathically as you suggest (eg. indirectly)).. let’s praise the trainers. Because it’s gotta be a pretty tough gig, to paint a picture with an elephant’s head (plus it’s mass, weight, inertia and distractions) between you, your brush and your canvas.

    Surely it’d be easier to just train the elephant.

  47. #58 – As someone who has been long been fascinated by elephants, I have logged countless hours watching videos of them, most of it documentary footage. I am no elephant expert by any means, but I can tell you that the constant head swinging by the babies is something that they seem to do a lot, even in the wild. Unless you left something else out, for you to characterize it as deranged is just you coloring a situation with your own bias. Deranged behavior implies behavior that is counter to, or interfering with, normal behavior. If you don’t know what baby elephants normally do then you can’t characterize what they are doing as deranged.

    #60 – I think that the humane treatment of animals is very important, but I also think it’s pure fantasy to think that a real change can be made in the treatment of animals until a real change is made in the living conditions of those abusing the animals.

    First, these people are making money off of this. They used to be making money off of hunting elephants down, slaughtering them and selling their body parts. Some still do, but it’s fallen out of fashion enough that it’s often not profitable enough to justify the risk of running afoul of poaching laws. So they found a new way to make money off of the resources they have. They are not going to give up making money off of elephants, if elephants are what they have. Until you can come up with a viable way to make as much or more money off of elephants than they are making from selling elephant paintings you can forget about it.

    Second, even if you could convince the government to make this sort of thing illegal, I would guess that the enforcement of it is going to be sketchy at best, non-existent at worst.

    Third, you are going to have a hard time convincing most people that poking an elephant with a stick amounts to inhumane torture.

  48. you are going to have a hard time convincing most people that poking an elephant with a stick amounts to inhumane torture.

    It’s a stick with a spike in the end of it. It hurts. But it’s probably more of an annoyance than torture. If you cause an elephant significant pain, you die right then and there. I’ve ridden elephants in India and Nepal and seen training facilities. It’s not entirely humane by my standards, but neither is the way that the human beings there are treated.

  49. Even if the trainer is moving the tusk, let’s not forget that an elephant’s trunk moves independently of it’s head and/or tusks.

  50. cruel or not to catch and break elephants (and the breaking IS horrendously cruel), there is no room left for them in this world save what we make to use them in. Sorry, aside from a few paltry preserves, that is how it is.

    Pretty amazing when you think about how a band of quarrelsome monkeys with no real natural weapons and laughable strength have so utterly dominated the planet that there is not even room for blue whales. Any idea how BIG to the ocean is? Well, wasn’t big enough now,was it?

  51. #66 ARKIZZLE

    I just have asked everyone here to show me proof that this is done without a handler touching the elephant.

    Where you get the idea of telepathy from I have no idea, and did not suggest it.

    Your feeble assertion that it would be easier to train the elephant to paint than move its trunk in response to physical commands is laughable. How do you think people ride horses?

  52. I just have asked everyone here to show me proof that this is done without a handler touching the elephant.

    Do you get a lot of responses to these demands for evidence? I mean besides the sniggering and eyerolling. If you want to buy the plane tickets and pay for the hotel, I’ll be happy to accompany you on a fact-finding expedition. Aisle seat, please.

  53. Don’t be silly. Why on earth would I want to fly anywhere when there is lots of video footage out there? Show me some of an elephant painting without a handler near it and I may change my mind.

  54. @ #31:

    There isn’t a neurophysiologist in the world who would argue that an animal at the cytogenic level of an elephant was devoid of consciousness.

    @ #61:

    In spite of how sure you are, there are, in fact, animals that demonstrate the skill you’ve described… human beings. Also, the cognitive ability of an ape may be comparable to that of a toddler, but a toddler can’t defend against predators or feed itself.

  55. Don’t be silly. Why on earth would I want to fly anywhere when there is lots of video footage out there?

    I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry at this comment.

  56. I spent a week on elephant back, looking for tigers and riding through herds of rhino and other beasts. To think that I could have saved the effort and just watched YouTube. D’oh.

  57. Gareth:

    ..probably directing (indirectly) the brush movement.

    Ok, I said ‘telepathically’ lightheartedly. Your quote above seems to mean: the trainer isn’t guiding the brush by direct, physical means. Is he whispering instructions to the elephant? Does the elephant have etch-a-sketch style controls under her chin?

    Certainly, there seems to be trainers present in similar videos I’ve seen (and one in particular on youtube, does look somewhat guided), I’m just not sure how controllable an elephant’s trunk is.

    The elephant above doesn’t have tusks, so can’t be ‘guided’ per se, without touching the trunk itself (which we don’t see in any of the videos). So, it would have to be signals, either spoken or touched on the side of the head. I dunno if we’ve worked out how to communicate vectors and coordinates by tapping on elephants (possibly a more impressive feat), but they seem to do a pretty good job, and with such consistency of work it seems far more likely they have been trained with repetition, rather than someone is painting “through” the elephant, with fresh instructions each time.

    The teachers do say they may show the elephants where to start a line when trying to paint something original, but you don’t see evidence of that here, so again, it seems more likely to be a trained elephant painting a remembered picture, than a remote-control elephant painting a new one.

    Also, this is a well documented phenomena, some of these paintings have sold for $25,000, so i reckon whoever dropped that wad, prob’ly didn’t feel like it was a “fake”.

    National Geographic

    Scientist Magazine

    ..and maybe get out of the house more.

  58. As a friend of elephants, I too have to post something in their defense. I had Binky (a 24 year old Asian male elephant) sit down with me and post his thoughts on the issues of Elephant art, elephant mistreatment, and a few other things. Here’s what he wrote:


  59. “Clever Hans (in German, der Kluge Hans) was a horse that claimed to have been able to perform arithmetic and other intellectual tasks.

    After formal investigation in 1907, psychologist Oskar Pfungst demonstrated that the horse was not actually performing these mental tasks, but was watching the reaction of his human observers. Pfungst discovered this artifact in the research methodology, wherein the horse was responding directly to involuntary cues in the body language of the human trainer, who had the faculties to solve each problem. The trainer was entirely unaware that he was providing such cues.[citation needed]

    In honour of Pfungst’s study, the anomalous artifact has since been referred to as the Clever Hans effect and has continued to be important knowledge in the observer-expectancy effect and later studies in animal cognition.”

  60. “Facilitated communication is a process by which a facilitator supports the hand or arm of a communicatively impaired individual while using a keyboard or typing device under the premise that people with autism and moderate and profound mental retardation have “undisclosed literacy” consistent with normal intellectual functioning.

    While it has been claimed that this process enables persons with autism or mental retardation to communicate, peer reviewed scientific studies have found that the typed language output attributed to the clients was directed or systematically determined by the therapists who provided facilitated assistance.”

  61. “Double-blind describes an especially stringent way of conducting an experiment, usually on human subjects, in an attempt to eliminate subjective bias on the part of both experimental subjects and the experimenters. In most cases, double-blind experiments are held to achieve a higher standard of scientific rigour.

    In a double-blind experiment, neither the individuals nor the researchers know who belongs to the control group and the experimental group. Only after all the data has been recorded (and in some cases, analyzed) do the researchers learn which individuals are which. Performing an experiment in double-blind fashion is a way to lessen the influence of the prejudices and unintentional physical cues on the results (the placebo effect, observer bias, and experimenter’s bias). Random assignment of the subject to the experimental or control group is a critical part of double-blind research design. The key that identifies the subjects and which group they belonged to is kept by a third party and not given to the researchers until the study is over.

    Double-blind methods can be applied to any experimental situation where there is the possibility that the results will be affected by conscious or unconscious bias on the part of the experimenter.”

  62. ANTINUOUS wrote:

    “I spent a week on elephant back, looking for tigers and riding through herds of rhino and other beasts. To think that I could have saved the effort and just watched YouTube. D’oh.”

    If you are going to reply to my comment, at least make a sensible one based upon the content and context of mine.
    If you can find any evidence in these Youtube videos to discount my claim, then please let us all know. It doesn’t look like you can, so you resort to some irrelevent nonesense instead.

  63. Arkizzle:

    Well the fact is we don’t know much about training elephants to “paint” representationally, and what is possible – the trainers here may well be the leading world experts, so their methods, if any, can only be speculated upon.
    It can be seen how it is possible to control horses to an extremely fine degree by touch and sound (dressage avents, “western riders” who control with only their legs etc), and indeed sheepdogs who are controlled at a long distance with sound alone. These elephant trainers could be using many different or mixed methods, even remotely.

    I think it is important to differentiate between the lifelike/stylised drawings these elephants are producing, and which is the real subject of this thread, and the adstract paintings other elephants do, who may well not be guided at all, but have indeed learnt to apply paint to canvas.

  64. @takuan – Wikipedia is not a primary source, and cutting and pasting from it does not lend authority to your posts. Using your own words would be more effective.

    You seem to be trying to say that this isn’t done under controlled conditions, and that the outputs can be manipulated. Fair enough, but that point has already been made.

    This video isn’t presented as scientific research; it shows in a compelling way that elephants can handle tools delicately, have good hand-eye co-ordination and have the ability to memorise and reproduce abstract patterns. That was certainly enough to change the impression that I had of elephants from watching Tarzan films.

  65. who said Wikipedia is a primary source? It is A source. A source adequate for this time and place.
    Who said I wish “authority”for my posts? A ludicrous assertation on the face of it. I desire no “authority” and claim none. My own words are an incredibly precious commodity. I dispense them graciously like fine pearls and rubies when appropriate. I doubt I have several billions left by now.

    I am “trying to say” nothing. Two examples and a process are given. Make what you wish of them.

    I have not personally seen an elephant paint. I allow it is possible, even likely based on this evidence.

    I was previously aware that elephants are intelligent, have complex families, communicate subsonically,mourn their dead, and generally behave better than humans.

    I most strenously doubt if elephants care if people think they can paint – or not.

  66. This issue reminds me of a TV show I watched where a famous art critic was asked about an abstract painting. “Oh, it’s very important…”

    A chimp named Congo painted the “very important” piece. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4712948

    And so, experts are at times, like all humans, and full of shit. “Oh, then it’s not a very important piece after all,” was her enlightened response. It should have been: (some light laughter with with a self-depricating tone), “Oh my gosh! And here I thought I knew it all. I’m so full of myself…ha ha ha.”

  67. This wouldn’t have happened if they haven’t turned the Hadron Collider back in the future.

  68. That same elephant was asked to paint Westminster Hall, at which point it was wrestled to the ground by a team of anti-terror stormtroopers and thrown into a holding cell.

  69. I saw two elephants paint at Elephant Conservation Center outside of Chiang Mai Thailand last month. I couldn’t say if trainers maintained contact with the elephants the entire time. The trainers were definitly standing next to them and aiding in the process to some degree. i was told by my guide that the elephants do it through memorization and have no idea what they’re painting. He also told us that elephants are color blind, so the trainers have to pick the colors for them. At no time did I see anyone hit an elephant with a metal hook as someone else claimed in a comment. I have no way of really knowing, but the elephants seemed happy and well cared for. It would be great if they could just run free and not be interfered with by humans, but in a modern world, with encroaching humans, dwindling food supplies and other dangers (land mines on the Thai / Myanmar border), living at a park where people feed you, give you attention and care for you when your sick doesn’t seem like a bad deal. It’s true they are sometimes exploited, but at least at the place I visited they seemed like they were being treated better than most people’s dogs or cats.

  70. Garethm,

    You have a bit of an attitude problem, what with the angry demands for video proof and insulting language. We’ve moved beyond responding to you into the realm of making fun of you. Seriously, leave the house sometime. YouTube is not life.

  71. Gareth:

    Although I take your point about some animal-human partnerships achieving relatively precise movement, you actually seem to be supporting the “other side” with this particular example.

    Horses are trained, they learn moves through repetition and reward. Although the rider may initiate and control the pace and timing of moves and sequences through the signals you mention, they are not achieving precise direction of limbs. They do not signal each discrete movement involved in a set-piece. The specific movement of, for example, a foot or leg is not remotely-controlled, the rider signals the animal to begin, and hold, a series of learnt motions.

    Yes, a rider can signal the horse, as a whole, to move in precise directions (forward/backward/raise leg), but he can’t signal the horse, with his legs, to draw an arbitrary phrase or object in the dirt with it’s hoof.

    The horse (presumably) could be trained to make a sequence of letter-gestures, which could then be initiated by the rider, but not to precisely draw ‘through’ the horse. To really push this idea (generously), perhaps the horse could even be trained each individual letter, allowing the spelling of words, but this still isn’t the same as being able to precisely guide a limb arbitrarily, through discreet leg-to-horse signalling.

    I really don’t see the issue you have with training an animal to recall a series of movements, and represent that movement with (in this example) paint on canvas. It doesn’t seem to be much greater a feat than some of the complex things we’ve seen animals do in the past (look at the things chimps can be trained to do; like sign language to communicate, complex tool use, etc.).


    #78 Palindromic

    Damn, that was funny.. the first time you posted it, in the other thread :p

  72. I do remember when they gave those musical instruments to the Thai elephants that they were free to wander in the immediate jungle – and were heard “playing” some of them on their own,for their own interest.

    Do these elephants paint when alone?

  73. Arkizzle:

    This is getting old so this is my last post.

    I was trying to point out that precise manipulation of animals is possible. The elephant is a very slow moving animal and has the capapcity to move its trunk in the precise manner you see in the videos. I doubt you could get a horse to move its head like this however much you abused it.
    The fact is that people have seen this in real life and on video and have taken it as evidence that Elephants have good eye/trunk co-ordination, and an ability to memorise and paint abstract shapes. This, as been stated many times, is no way a scientific study, so there is no way such conclusions can be reached, even though people obviuosly want to believe such a thing. We like that idea don’t we.
    The handlers are making money from tourists, and due to the horrific ways they “train” these unfortunate Elephants, can make them do anything they want, and this particular display probably brings in more interest and thus more money. They are always attached to the Elephant duing these painting displays, so I conclude it is far more likely they have developed a way to make the elephant move its trunk as directed. That is their job.

    PS When Antinuous offered to accompany me on a fact finding trip and I declined, saying there was lots of video footage out there, I was referring to the evidence of this phenonenon, not that I learnt all about the world by sitting in watching YouTube. That just goes to show what happens when you snip the context from a post when replying to it, as he did.
    I apologise for being a bit shirty with you, I just replied in a like fashion when you called my observations “feeble”. No hard felings.

  74. @Takuan, thank you for responding. I enjoyed the few of your pearls that you scattered before me.

    I think you hit at the heart of it when you asked if these elephants paint when on their own. If they do, it would be interesting to see the results – do they merely daub for the experience of seeing colour on the canvas, or is there structure in what they produce? Do they repeat elements? Do they have recognisable styles? Do they copy each other?

    These elephants would be an interesting set of subjects, because their training means that we can be more confident that any lack of “artistic” expression was not due to lack of physical ability.

  75. My post doesn’t deal directly with the elephant video. I’m responding to the person who said that, “Animals essentially are only subconscious, and without a consciousness. In short, they can’t reason, or speak, or really understand abstract things.” That’s not true at all. That kind of thinking went out the window decades ago. National Geographic magazine just had an interesting article on this very subject(cover story of March 2008 edition). Here’s a link to the article online. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/03/animal-minds/virginia-morell-text

  76. I think this issue of elephant consciousness could be solved fairly simply. You train the elephant to draw the elephant slightly wrong. Maybe 3 legs or no trunk and see if the elephant corrects the picture.

    Also, for those not believing the elephant “knows” its drawing another elephant, they do apparently recognize themselves in a mirror. So I would suspect that the elephant knows the picture to be one of its kind. What thoughts are engendered from that, who knows? Doubtful that philosophical thought is generated, maybe perhaps a warm feeling or some sense of irony?

    If we come from common mamalian ancestors, it seems reasonable to assume that other species have some degree of the faculties we possess. From observation, I would suggest that elephants don’t have our degree of consciousness, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have it entirely. Chimps and gorillas probably have symbolic thought but don’t have it to our degree. Perhaps they can’t keep it in their memory long enough (as a child cannot) to do the things we can and do with a thought. They don’t have the RAM or processing power as it were..?

    Interesting stuff though..





  78. There are too many comments here by posters who don’t really know what they are talking about. Sure there are elephants (all animals) that are cruelly treated, but the elephant shown in the vdo is not one of them. I searched for some intelligent commentary and came across this really informative website in Thailand http://www.elephantartgallery.com

    It has loads of articles about elephants and about ele paintings such as “How elephant art is made” and “Are elephants helped when painting” and most appropriate to this thread “How can I spot a fake elephant painting” here http://www.elephantartgallery.com/learn/authentic/spotting-fake-elephant-paintings.php

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