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California sea lions showcase painting skills

The Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo continually improves and develops its Animal Enrichment Program. The newest breakthrough in enrichment activities is painting.

“We’re always looking to find unique ways for the animals to exercise their minds, express creativity and have fun,” says Melissa Nelson, Curatorial Science Fellow for Animal Behavior at the Wildlife Conservation Society. “Painting is a great new activity for our naturally curious and playful animals to challenge themselves.”

Indy, one of four female California sea lions, was the first animal to showcase her new painting skills to the public.

“Indy learned the new art like all new behaviors, in increments,” says Nelson. “First, she learned how to hold a stick in her mouth. When she was comfortable, we replaced the stick with a brush. Finally, with the brush comfortably in her mouth, we taught her how to move her head in a manner that replicates a stroking motion. Once she understood how to put brush to canvas, she began developing her own motions and techniques different from the ones we taught.”

“Indy is a very bright, fast learning animal,” says Nelson. “It only took a few sessions to get her painting and loving it. Each time we paint, her excitement for the activity grows.”

With the success of this activity resting solely on the enthusiasm of the animals, it is impossible to say how long the painting will continue. Nelson reports, “We’d like to offer painting to as many animals as possible, but it will only continue if the animals are enjoying it.”

Two other animals that are learning to paint publicly are Indy’s fellow sea lions Cleo and Kiani.

The Wildlife Conservation Society continues to develop enrichment programs throughout all five of its New York Zoos and Aquarium. WCS seeks to exercise animal minds and bodies. Keepers work with their charges to strengthen keeper-animal bonds, stimulate natural behaviors, and facilitate care. Other enrichment items, many behind the scenes, can range from a giant pulley toy for big cats, to a foraging log for birds or octopuses, to a mobile for monkeys. Visitors can watch animal play and training sessions at exhibits throughout the parks.

The sea lion painting does not have an established schedule, but if it is occurring it will take place during regular sea lion feeding times at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. For more info call (718) 367-1010.

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