Methods Used To Teach Painting Skills To Elephants

By | September 3, 2013

by Marian Bond

I am a Senior Lecturer in animal behaviour and welfare at a British University and my students have brought the painting elephant videos to my attention.

Their concern is in regard to the methods used to train the elephants to paint? Some web pages insist that cruel and compulsive methods are the norm rather than positive reinforcement.

Are there any videos that demonstrate the methods used?


Comments for
Methods Used To Teach Painting Skills To Elephants

Teaching Elephants To Paint In Thailand
by: Kevin (Administration)

Hi Marian
Many thanks for your visit to our website & subsequent interesting questions. Luckily I have a friend who works withelephants & their training on a daily basis here in Thailand so hopefully you will find her following information useful….over to Ewa:

“As with every other story you come across on the internet, there are two sides to them, there are the wonderfulYouTube videos of elephants painting beautiful portraits viewed by millions & there are the animal activists who try to find bad where there should only be good!.

Elephant painting at Elephantstay is essentially a positive stimulant for both elephant and mahout(elephant trainer).

Generally the mahouts who look after elephants do not have much of an education, to give them a creative outlet that they can enjoy together with an elephant is really an incredible opportunity for both mahout and elephant to grow and explore the world in a different way.

It is easy to be an armchair activist, comfortable in beliefs that never get challenged on a day to day basis as most of the people who are condemned in this regard are not articulate, do not speak English, do not have access to computers or the internet and so have no way of defending themselves; an easy target.

What these so called abusive mahouts do, is get up every day and take care of their elephants whether in the hot sun or pouring rain. Mahouts certainly don’t own video cameras and take individual videos of themselves training their elephant, that is a resource not available to them.

Training an elephant begins from the time they are born.Elephants like people learn what they know. We have had 40 successful births in 10 years, retrained numerous killer and dangerous elephants and trained elephants to the highest standard in the world.

At Elephantstay we know what we are doing and when I say that our elephants are reared in a very positive way, then I am speaking from a vast pool of knowledge and knowhow with the credentials to back it up. And yes sometimes they need to be disciplined, all young do. All one needs to understand there is that there is a huge difference between discipline and abuse.

The fact that your students and yourself have only been able to access the voice of those that make sweeping negative generalisations shows how privileged these people are in their resources. As opposed to those who are actually doing the work of keeping elephants alive in today’s unforgiving world.

Continued Below:

Teaching Elephants To Paint In Thailand – Cont
by: Kevin (Administration)

Final section of Ewa’s article

I would also recommend reading “When Elephants Paint” by Komar and Melamid. This will give you some insight into how the painting phenomenon began and how the training was instituted.

Otherwise, people are welcome to visit our Elephantstay website or better still come and stay with us and experience firsthand the relationship between elephant and mahout.”

Here’s a recent short video of our talented elephants!.

Ewa Narkiewicz
Communications Director

Response to Ewa
by: Marian Bond

Dear Ewa
Many thanks for your swift response to my query. Following the viewing of the elephant painting on the video I searched the web and found numerous examples of the behaviour in various sites around the world.

While, as an experienced animal trainer myself, I am fully aware that positive reinforcement is an effective method of teaching even complex behaviours, I am also sadly aware of the degree to which compulsion relying on positive punishment and negative reinforcement is still used in training a range of species.

I was greatly encouraged by your response and can now refer my students to your site for more information.

Unfortunately, my web search also revealed a number of appalling videos of the so called ‘training’ of elephants in crush cages with physical abuse being administered to the completely restrained animal, presumably designed to drive the animal into a state of learned helplessness.

These are heart rending and powerful images and their viewers will be difficult to reassure with a thousand words. So it is not simply the reports from uninformed people that you are battling against but the very real images of abusive methods being used in the name of training by mahout ‘trainers’ who sadly seem ignorant of better techniques.

Unless they have experienced the power of shaping with positive reinforcement I imagine it is difficult for animal activists to believe that the complex behaviour of paintingcould be trained without compulsion.

I realise resources are limited and as you say, training is prolonged over years, but some video images of positive reinforcement at work in shaping some of the core behaviours such as holding the brush or targeting the page could raise some very positive PR and go some way to reassuring the activists, who do have animal welfare at their hearts, albeit sometimes misguided in their targets.

Further Information
by: Ewa Narkiewicz

Dear Marian
I assume the video you refer to is supposedly of the “pajaan” which is the process of separating mothers and their young.

I dont know exactly how many different examples you saw of this. What I do know is that at least one of these would be a video that was investigated by the Royal Thai Police and found to be set up for and paid for by militant animal activists.

Unfortunately it is impossible to police the internet and people using this type of disreputable material to further their own ends.
As I said we have had 40 successful births and separating mothers and babies does not involve abuse or torture of any kind.

I wonder how many of these people who place these videos on their site, know their origin. If indeed these are factual is there any evidence that those so concerned about this are actually going to these places where this goes on and trying to change the practice to a more humane one? I seriously doubt it.

Videos On The Web
by: Anonymous

Once again Ewa, thank you for your swift response and I am overjoyed with your success. I am also heartened to hear that the Thai police investigated the apparent abuse in the case you mention and would obviously have taken steps if the allegations had proved founded.

However, real or staged, the videos that can be found on the web are there and hence perpetuating the image of compulsive techniques in common practice.

Happily there are several elephant ‘rescue’ organisations but they give harrowing details of the abuse and neglect suffered by some of their now happy residents which, unless completely contrived to increase donations (which I cannot believe) indicate that at least some elephants(and surely one is too many) are suffering from inappropriate training and husbandry methods.

What we need are more videos of the compassionate, positive and successful training of animals of all species by positive reinforcement to offset the negative images and persuade those without training knowledge that the techniques of incremental shaping and reward are effective in training animals to perform complex behaviours willingly and without abusive compulsion.

I will certainly make my students aware of your organisation and, given your positive philosophy of husbandry and training, I suspect some may be keen to visit your centre in the future.

re: animal abuse
by: Anonymous

Is it true that when animals are mistreated and abused in the process of training that they will eventually lash out at their trainer?

I read “Animals Make Us Human” by Temple Grandin recently. She emphasizes that using abusive techniques and negative reinforcement to train animals can be ineffective (not to mention deplorable)and can often backfire on the trainer.

I would think in the case of elephants, being so intelligent, that they would respond more intensely to abusive behavior and they would not necessarily cooperate with the training. In other words, the fact that elephants can and do paint is evidence that they were trained humanely. Would you say that is correct?

Don’t be fooled
by: Anonymous

Don’t be fooled Marion. Especially by a “non-profit” FOR PROFIT elephant stay (camp) in the heart of Mahout land….the worst!

how can we really know?
by: Anonymous

Owners of elephant camps would always say their training techniques are human…

Animal protection NGOs will say the elephants are actually tortured…

Both make money out of it – out of elephant shows or out of elephant rescue.

So far I found nobody who could have an objective say about this. Sadly, the Thai police would not investigate on domestic elephants issues (I think the law does not allow them to interfere), which are considered equivalent to livestock.

I think the best would be if more and more people go to these camps to spend time there, talk to the mahouts, watch the training process, ask for information…

Maybe students should be encouraged to do this. Not to mention tha the constant presence of “international observers” would strongly deter any abuse!

Helping already abused animals is wonderful, but not enough. If we really care about it, we should try to help preventing and stopping the abuses!