5 Animals That Create Art

Editor’s note: This Care2 favorite was originally posted on December 26, 2012.

Animals can paint and make sculptures. But is it art?

In a study published in 2006, Gisela Kaplan and Lesley J. Rogers examined this question very carefully. The researchers considered how animals perceive colors — elephants only see two pigments, while humans can see three — and attempted to understand if they feel any pleasure from looking at their creations.

That is, Kaplan and Rogers sought to consider animals’ creations with paint and other materials from their perspective. To humans, the paintings of elephants may resemble abstract art, but to assume the elephant thinks the same overlooks their anatomy and physiology. Additionally, we do not know if animals produce art in their natural environments.

Nonetheless, studying animal artwork certainly shows that many are capable of more complex behaviors than had previously been thought. Kaplan and Rogers also note that a better understanding of animals’ aesthetic sense and abilities can have implications for animal welfare:

… might realize that sounds and colors matter as much as structures in the way housing for animals is organized, whether in zoos, research facilities, or other human settings, and that we should have a much broader perspective on the types of activities we make available to these animals. Ultimately, finding that some animals share a sense of aesthetics—as humans use the term—might well change our sensitivities and attitudes to animals overall, offering further evidence to dismantle the outworn claim that animals are “just” animals.

Here are five animals that make what we humans consider art.

1. Gorillas

There have been numerous reports of captive primates painting. But not only have the gorillas Koko and Michael painted, they have also been able to explain what they have painted as they learned to sign.

Koko painted what looked like a bird with wings, albeit too many, and signed that she had painted a bird. A chimpanzee named Moja also communicated that she had painted a bird.

2. Seals

Seals in captivity have been taught to paint with color. But as Kaplan and Rogers point out, the animals are colorblind. The cells of seal retinas contain only green cones, so they can only see green. It is not clear why or how the seals choose different colors of paint.

Other marine mammals, like whales and dolphins — which have also been known to paint in captivity — have the same monochromatic vision. Kaplan and Rogers believe the adaptation is ”likely to have evolved for life in the sea.”

3. Cows

Not only are there bovine artists, NPR reports, but they use quite an unusual medium: 50-pound cubes of salt.

Ranchers give the salt cubes to cows as nutritional supplements. A few years ago, Whit Deschner of Baker, Oregon, observed that the blocks, once licked over, had an array of grooves and curves that left them resembling “vertebrae from prehistoric creatures.” Others appeared to be “windswept sandstone formations you might see in canyon country.” Accordingly, Deschner dreamed up a crazy idea: the “Great Salt Lick Contest.”

While most were initially dubious about the idea, the contest has become a community effort to raise funds for research on Parkinson’s disease, a condition which Deschner himself has. The salt lick creations are auctioned off, with most selling for $200 or $300. The highest price tag ever was $1,000. Overall, more than $30,000 has been raised from “Deschner’s folly.”

4. Elephants

It is not entirely surprising that elephants can paint with a brush or their trunk. After all, they use a range of tools in captivity. Just like humans, different elephants have unique painting styles, which Kaplan and Rogers attribute to individual trunk movements.

While elephants paint in a number of colors, they can only see two pigments — bluish-violet colors and yellowish-red ones — a possible adaption for improved night vision.

5. Bowerbirds

Bowerbirds select objects for their shape and color and then arrange them in their bowers in what — to humans — seems a deliberately artistic ordering. Satin bowerbirds even paint their bowers with their saliva and plant extracts.

The Bowerbird is the only creature noted here that has been observed creating art in the wild and not in captivity. However, the question remains: Are animals in the wild actually being artistic? Or do animals only create art in zoos and water parks because they have nothing better to do?

What do you think? Are the paintings of elephants and seals, the drawings of chimpanzees and gorillas, the salt sculptures of cows and the trinket-filled bowers of bowerbirds “art”?

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Photo Credit: Yu-Chan Chen/Flickr


Yvonne T
Yvonne T28 days ago


Louise A
Louise A1 months ago


lyne lefebvre
lyne lefebvre2 months ago

This post is not a CARE one...These animals are
- in captivity, abused, become amusements, suffering.
This post is like Circus, Marine Shows, or animal abuse, and everything we sign petitions against ! What is it doing here??
Luckily others have shared same concern.
Disappointed that there si no critical vision in reposting this 2012 thing and please, STOP saying THANK YOU for posting or FOR sharing...

tammy C
tammy C2 months ago


Mark Donner
Mark Donner3 months ago

If there's any punishment or deprivation caused to the animals, then the humans responsible should be hung upside down and whipped with barb wire for a week. But despite the self loathing that humans have to deny the fact, animals can be creative and have a sense of aesthetics which is superior to them. Humans not so much much. Humanity with only a tiny minority of exceptions, is the lowest level of life form possible in the universe.

Jessica C
Jessica C3 months ago

Let the animals do things THEY want to do- not make art for humans... What IS that? Ridiculous

Angela K
Angela K3 months ago

Angela K ......2 years ago
STOP SPREAD THIS "play down" animal abuse in captivity - these pictures show cruelty to animals ,suffering for a life time and distress for body and mind - NOT ART !!!!
To the autor Kristina C, you have NO idea about you are writing !!!!
For example - elephants must endure a "training" to break their spirit until the submission ..... called "Phaajan" !!!!
Baby elephants will separated from their mothers and tortured for weeks until they are "give up" and then they will abused for the entertainment industry - for rides, make stupid tricks or also as painting elephants !!!

Please read this article - we must stop the cruelty to these unique and gentle giants and all animals !!!!!


Angela K
Angela K3 months ago

All these examples cause much pain in my heart because they do not show art, but animals in need or captivity and the only species that uses, kills, torments and humiliates another species for fun, entertainment, sick science, sport and hunting excitement .... are humans !
As long as human race do this, we will never reach the greatness, magnificence and beauty of our animal roommates of this planet.

Cindy M. D
Cindy M. D3 months ago

I could never buy or support any art that comes from an animal - it is completely unnatural for them. Cruel!

Elisabeth T
Elisabeth T3 months ago

Thank you for sharing.