Primate Picasso 

An orangutan at the Memphis Zoo paints for charity.


Primates at the Memphis Zoo tend to stay indoors when it's cold outside, but one orangutan beats the winter blues with paints and canvas.

Chickie, a 33-year-old orangutan who's been creating abstract paintings since 1996, recently completed a work that's currently up for auction on Mid-South Spay & Neuter Services' Facebook page.

"We open the paint and squirt it on the canvas, and then we slide it under her door," said Sandi Shoemaker, a primate keeper at the Memphis Zoo. "When she's done, she'll slide it back to us."

Before each painting session, keepers present Chickie with a box of paint bottles. She chooses colors by pressing her lips to the ones she wants. Shoemaker said some days, Chickie will pick several colors and other days, she'll go with one solid color.

The painting being auctioned for Mid-South Spay & Neuter Services is an abstract work with splashes of green, yellow, and orange. A Memphis Zoo vet, who also volunteers with the low-cost spay and neuter organization, donated the painting for auction. The money raised will benefit the clinic's Feral February program, which offers free spay and neuter services for feral cats throughout the month. The auction runs through Wednesday, February 16th.

Chickie's painted hundreds of abstracts works over the years, Shoemaker said. Most are donated to nonprofits for fund-raisers or are auctioned at Memphis Zoo events.

In 1996, Chickie's former keeper taught the orangutan to paint by rewarding her with treats each time she'd touch a brush to her canvas or move it across the surface.

"I'm sure her keeper heard about [teaching orangutans to paint] from another zoo. We're always looking for ways to keep the primates busy. They get bored easily because they're so smart," Shoemaker said.

Like human artists, Chickie must be inspired to complete a painting. Several years ago, she went through a period of artist's block and refused to paint for a year. At that time, Chickie's keepers were choosing colors for her, but when they allowed the orangutan to pick her own palette, she found her muse once again.

"Sometimes Chickie paints in swirls and sometimes in back and forth strokes," Shoemaker said. "Sometimes she just paints her cage wall instead."

Chickie isn't the only artistic animal at the Memphis Zoo. One of the zoo's newest orangutans also paints, and the sea lions and pandas have taken up the hobby. The penguins occasionally create works by walking across canvas with paint on their feet. Some animals, however, just weren't born with a creative side.

"Our male [orangutan] Tombak likes to lick the paint off [the canvas], and then he tries to paint, but there's no paint left," Shoemaker said. "We've tried teaching our gorillas, but they just don't care. They don't see the point."

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