Are elephant paintings the result of prolonged animal abuse?

I was just turned onto thiswebsite, claiming that elephant paintings are a product of prolonged animal abuse.

Is there a lot if any truth to this? I don’t doubt the elephants are insanely intelligent and emotional animals, and I guess I figured that they might actually want to or be able to paint things if given the chance (not that I ever thought much of any of the elephant paintings I’ve seen).

But if it’s true that they are really the result of prolonged, abusive “training” then that is very sad and I’m a bit heart broken.

I did a search on the boards here and found 2 older threads where people were arguing that the animals were not creating imaginative art, but were simply trained to paint one thing over and over again. I can believe that.

My question is, does the training involve what might reasonably called abuse?

Giving this a bump, really hoping anyone has some input on this.

I read an article on Snopes recently about elephant paintings. At the end there’s a text by someone who says that the elephants are abused, though Snopes doesn’t seem to cite a source.

That’s pretty much what it appears to be.

Making the elephant stand there for hours while you paint him is abusive. Plus, how do those paint rollers on long sticks feel to him?

This thread is about making elephants themselves paint, not painting on elephants.

Oh. But why for should we make elephants themselves paint? That worse seems than us them painting. And why for we want painted elephants anyway? Gray is nice color!

Hitler… there was a painter! He could paint an entire elephant in ONE afternoon! TWO coats!

I lol’d pretty loud.

Thank you for that link. It seems to corroborate the website I found. Too bad it isn’t sourced, as you pointed out.

A truly sad thing, forcing animals through abuse to fool people into thinking they have created works of art.

Many years ago I took my daughter to a private zoo in New England. They had a elephant doing paintings – but they were extremely abstract works, the result of the elephant swiping at the canvas with the brush, with no attempt to portray flowers or elephants or anything else recognizable. The canvas also didn’t sell for several thousand dollars. It’s hard for me to believe that this was the result of prolonged animal abuse. I suspect the things the elephant had to be trained to do were pretty minimal, and wouldn’t have required a lot of behavioral modification.
The representational art done on the linked sites? That’d require orders of magnitude more effort. I don’t know if what the trainers did was abusive or not, but I suspect that the elephant was more than a little annoyed at what it was being repetitively made to do. It might indeed have had a lot of stick, and not so much carrot.

These articles seem to be suggesting that elephant training of any sort requires that the elephant be “broken” first, like a bronco horse in cowboy lore, and they say that that process is carried out abusively, at least in certain countries.

I’d prefer to see some more verification before accepting these accounts. In the US, for instance, with so much attention paid to the conditions of circus animals, it would surprise me if elephant training involving abusive beatings and confinement could be carried out on a regular basis without attracting some level of public scrutiny.

More about that here. You can find video, too.

Paging Siam Sam.

I’d be happy to get his perspective, but it’s not a secret that this goes on in some cultures. If you Google phajaan (the Thai word for it) you can find other stories and examples. There’s video here. I went to a nature preserve in Thailand a few years ago and saw some video from one of the ceremonies myself. This is what gets done to captive elephants.

I can’t speak for elephant painting per se. But I disagree that all elephant training can be classified as abuse. I have known families who raised generations of elephants. How the original elephants came about way back when, I don’t know, but the subsequent generations were very well treated and not “broken like a bronco.” They wandered free at night to roam the forest and always stayed around the homestead without having to be chained or penned in and were a delight to play with. They could have killed me anytime they wanted.

I’ve played elephant polo. The elephants were already trained of course, but they certainly gave every appearance of enjoying the play. There are strict rules governing their treatment, and they can’t play more than half a chukka, meaning 7-1/2 minutes. You have to switch to a fresh elephant then. The ones leaving the field get bathed and rubbed down and looked to me to be in elephant-spa heaven. I have never seen an elephant being mistreated during a tournament.

That said, there is a lot of abuse. This is Thailand, and this is Asia. Many people here just don’t care very much how animals are treated. Little Thai boys are horrifically cruel to dogs and cats. It is a problem. But at the same time, many mahouts (elephant keepers/handlers) love their elephants like their own family. Indeed, traditionally they come in father/son teams, because the elephant would outlive the father. Elephants live a long time. They are part of the family. Sadly, that’s falling by the wayside more and more in this modern age.

And it’s a very emotionally charged issue, akin to child abuse. I think saying all elephant training can be classified as abuse is not very different from people saying keeping dogs and cats as pets constitutes slavery. But usually I don’t get involved in this sort of discussion, because people will end up accusing me of denying there’s any problem at all, which is not true.

To that end I probably should have said elephants that are forced to perform or work rather than just saying “captive,” which could be taken a few different ways.

Well, like I said, it is a big problem. But I have seen elephants who genuinely seemed to treat a turn in the country like a little excursion, and there are others who don’t like it at all. If you’re forced to do it all day non-stop and starved to boot, then yeah, there’s going to be a problem.

The sanctuary Marley went to up North is good. Elephantstay in central Thailand’s Ayutthaya province has a pretty good reputation. I would be surprised to find out they were guilty of abuse. However, they offer mahout-training courses, and many of the elephants you see in films and TV here are theirs. Owned and operated by a couple of Aussie ladies, one of whom used to be a senior zookeeper in Melbourne. So there is some riding, there’s some film acting, but I’ve still heard much good about them. They have quite a successful breeding program too and a baby nursery. Their website says they’re up to 90+ elephants now and 57 successful births since 2000. So their elephants are trained, but not in an abusive manner.

A big part of the problem too is lack of government support. Particularly up North, elephants were used in logging. Then in the late 1980s I think it was, the government banned logging in Thailand due to problems with severe deforestation. Suddenly all these elephants were thrown out of work. It was hard work to begin with, but after that they had no way to make money. The government just ignored them, so the mahouts had to start bringing their elephants into the cities to beg and such. What do you do when you’re stuck with an elephant? I hate seeing them brought into a city like Bangkok, but I can understand what drives them in. Haven’t seen any here for quite a while though, so maybe the authorities have finally succeeded in keeping them out. But they still need something to do and someplace to go. It’s really a complicated problem.

And there are elephant hospitals now. The first one was in Lampang province in the North, connected with the Friends of the Asian Elephant organization, but since then a few others are dotted around the country. Those do good work too, but are dependent on donations. I doubt they get much if anything from the government.

The hospital in Lampang is the one that gave a prosthesis to Motala, an elephant who stepped on a land mine in Burma in 1999 and made the news worldwide. Her mahout had taken her into Burma for logging – after the Thai ban, many elephants ended up logging in neighboring countries. I think Motala still lives at the hospital. she’s mentioned in the link to there.

From my experience with horses I would say that if elephants were completely and abusively “broken” as training, they would not be as effective. You wouldn’t end up with very good elephants.

Horses are of course “broken in”, and it’s not like they appreciate it the first time you make them wear confusing and restrictive things on their heads. It is quite harsh and doesn’t look like fun for the horse. But the point isn’t to be cruel. Eventually you want them to be able to communicate with the rider, you want them to be able to develop a reciprocal relationship. I’m sure there are terrible people who just beat horses and are horrible to them, but you won’t end up with a very good and useful horse.

You want a horse to trust you and form a team with you, though you will be team leader. That’s never going to be great if you literally broke him completely and you have a wreck of horse.

I’d expect the same of elephants. I’m sure people will do it, but I’m sure there are also people who have noticed that if you have 5 tonnes of elephant working with you that’s rather more effective.

And looking over their website now, I see they’ve included an elephant-painting section. I really think if this outfit is doing it, there’s not likely to be any abuse involved, at least not in this particular instance. Perhaps it’s all in the manner of training?