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Originally published May 10, 2017

Words by Kaylee Dugan
Photos by Clarissa Villondo

Anytime I can go behind the scenes at the Zoo, I will. From the Small Mammal House to the Reptile Discovery Center, we’ve done quite a bit of behind the scenes touring, but nothing beats this. Sure, expanding your knowledge on the care required to keep our favorite animals friends happy and healthy is great, but at the end of the day, going to the Zoo is about tapping into your childhood delight. What could be more delightful than watching a seal paint a picture?

Inside the Artist Studio National Zoo

It sounds like a gimmick that should be apart of the circus (I would insert a RIP here, but let’s be honest with ourselves, it was time), but with anything at the Zoo, it’s more like a meticulously thought out exercise. Many of the animals paint, and not just because the idea of it bring joy to our hearts, but because it fulfills two very important needs. First, many of the paintings are auctioned off at events like Zoofari (grab your tickets here, folks) in order to raise money the Zoo needs (Bao Bao’s first painting went for around $6,000), and second, it reinforces some very important trained behaviors the animals. These are considered enrichment activities because they teach the animals to use the skills they’ve learned (holding something in their mouth or making a certain motion with their head) in a different way.

Inside the Artist Studio National ZooInside the Artist Studio National Zoo

As the keepers assemble to the tools required (like grabbing some USDA human grade fish and octopus and some vet approved paint), we enter the back area of the gray seal exhibit. As with most of the exhibits in the Zoo, the back of the exhibit is unlocked so the animals in the front can come back and spend time out of the public eye. Kjya, Kara and Gunther are hanging out in the back today, while Birdie, Kara and Gunther’s offspring, is swimming around out front. Kara is Gunther’s main mate and because of that, the 600-700 pound male is very protective of her. Kjya, who has eyes as big as dinner plates and is aggressively cute, is more of a free agent, so the painting falls to her.

Inside the Artist Studio National ZooInside the Artist Studio National Zoo

She adeptly grabs the brush and starts painting away, taking breaks to munch on fish and octopus. As a keeper loads up more paint on her makeshift mouth brush, we learn that many of the behaviors are taught to make medical procedures easier on the animals. The less you have to put an animal under, the safer it is for them, so keepers spend time each day getting the seals used to certain procedures. Kjya and Kara are both trained to participate in sonograms, while Gunther has recently learned how to handle dental x-rays. The skills behind painting, like keeping something in your mouth and learning where to hold your head, are building blocks that play into these more complicated skills.

Inside the Artist Studio National ZooInside the Artist Studio National Zoo

After a few minutes, Kjya (who I am now fully in love with) grows bored with painting and flops back into the water. For her, it’s been a run of the mill enrichment session. For the rest of us, it’s the most adorably impressive thing we’ve ever seen.

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