Really Wild Art!

by Gabrielle Balzell

Meet the Rembrandts, van Goghs and Picassos of Peoria Zoo…

He works at a fervent pace, accenting bold swirls of violet and green with specks and smears of a calming sky blue. Brief pauses of contemplation are quickly followed by the scattering of more paint. With one last swipe of the perfect purple shade, his work is done. Though he doesn’t sign his masterpiece, its creator is unmistakable, his identity given away by the delicate, webbed footprints dotting the paper. Without question, this is the work of Walnut, an agile box turtle and just one of Peoria Zoo’s many artists-in-residence.

In addition to serving as ambassadors in media interviews and at special events, close to two dozen animals within the zoo’s education department can tack on the title of “painter” to their resumes. Everything from an opossum, ferret and hedgehog to a variety of birds, snakes and other reptiles create the colorful, abstract designs found in the Safari Gift Shop. “It’s not ‘painting’ like you would think of necessarily, but it’s definitely a creative thing our animals are doing,” explains Jill Roderick, Peoria Zoo’s education curator. “It’s fun for us, and it’s fun for the animals.”

Entertainment and Enrichment
While some animals, like Walnut, practically dive onto the palette and embrace the exhilarating, slippery feeling of paint between their toes, others proceed with more caution and sometimes tolerate the slimy experience only once. “It’s kind of like the first time you bring fingerpaints out for a kid,” Roderick notes. “They either really like it or really don’t, but either way… it’s kind of a cool thing they’ve done that’s a little bit different than what they’ve done before.”

Though it’s entertaining to watch their varied reactions, offering the animals these kinds of new experiences isn’t just about having fun. In fact, the painting sessions function as an important enrichment activity, providing zoo residents with unexpected physical and mental stimulation like they would encounter in the wild. “Animals in the wild have to worry about two things: finding food and being food,” Roderick says. “Here at the zoo, none of our animals have to worry about that. So instead, what we have to do is… keep them interested in what’s going on around them.” Painting, she’s found, is a great way to do just that.

Giving the animals a chance to spend time out of their regular enclosures, the artistic process is sometimes as simple as laying out a few dollops of non-toxic paint and letting them run—or slither—around a piece of paper for a while, yielding trails of colorful paw, foot and tail prints. But for Bebe, the zoo’s cunningly clever cockatoo, learning to paint with a brush has provided a perfect opportunity to exercise her intelligence for good instead of boredom-inspired mischief.

“Just seeing her actually paint like a little human is so cool,” remarks Lydia Miller, a zoo educator and one of Bebe’s trainers. Using peanuts and sunflower seeds as rewards, Miller has helped teach the brainy bird to hold a paintbrush, equipped with an easy-to-grip tennis ball on its end, and apply her own brushstrokes to a piece of cardstock set up on a homemade easel just her size. What’s more, Bebe has even learned to “sign” her work, using her beak to pierce a hole into the bottom corner of each piece she creates. “We paint with her everyday, so she creates a lot of different artwork,” Miller notes, adding that soon, Bebe will be able to push her creativity even further, as she is currently learning to select her own paint from a palette. “I’m really looking forward to letting her pick the colors to see what she chooses.”

Both zoo guests and the animal trainers enjoy Bebe’s unique, foot-painted designs as they do reptilian works, like those by snakes, whose slithery skin often produces spectacular silhouettes. “You see this whole splash of scales across the paper,” describes Holly Harmon, also a zoo educator. “It really is cool to watch them make the patterns.” For Roderick, though, one particular animal’s signature style always wins her heart. “I’m an armadillo fan—there’s really not even a question,” she says with a laugh. “Their tails sometimes drag a pattern… and they’ll leave little nose prints in different colors all over the paper. I just think that’s really cool.”

Art for a Cause
While most of the painting happens behind the scenes, guests do get the chance to see the animals in action at a few special events throughout the year, including the zoo’s “Art and the Animal” classes, photo safaris and Zoo Camp. Within the next few years, Roderick hopes to expand the program to incorporate a dual art show of wildlife work and wildlife-inspired pieces by local artists, as well as additional opportunities for children and adults alike to delight in the messy fun. “People really enjoy watching it, and the animals really like it,” Roderick affirms. “We’ve got some really great animals—this is what they’re here for, and they’re great at it.”

All three women agree the animals are stars of the Education Department, as well as key colleagues in carrying out Peoria Zoo’s mission of fostering connections between the public and animals “that inspire an appreciation for the natural world.” Their ability to both entertain and educate are what keep guests coming back, ensuring the welfare of all the zoo’s residents and promoting the conservation of those still in the wild. “It’s one of those things a lot of people don’t think about. Admission into the zoo, everything all comes back to the general zoo fund. By visiting the zoo and taking part in programs and buying things like [the paintings], it’s all benefiting the animals,” Roderick explains. “It all goes into the feeding and the caring of these animals. So everything that we’re doing is basically going back to making sure everybody is well taken care of… all of it helps.”

No longer hidden amongst the clutter of the zoo’s former store, today, the masterpieces of Walnut, Bebe and other affectionately-named animal artists sit in plain view inside the Safari Gift Shop, waiting to be displayed at home on a child’s wall or maybe even taken to work to brighten up an office. Whether you purchase a painting, sign up for a class, take a guided tour or just spend a day exploring the exhibits, there are countless ways to enjoy the Peoria Zoo—while guaranteeing the health and happiness of its residents, too! a&s

The Peoria Zoo is open daily from 10am to 5pm. For a schedule of upcoming programs and events, call (309) 686-3365 or visit