There was no portrait of the elephant as a young pachyderm at a recent fair in Gainesville, Florida. The elephant, named Luke, was scheduled to paint at the Tioga arts festival but was pulled from the schedule following an outcry from animal advocates.
"I think it is morally wrong to coerce these smart animals to do something like this," Gladys Cofrin, an animal activist and president of the Wagmore Foundation, told the Gainesville Sun. "It gives children the wrong idea about animals and elephants. It's not a natural behavior."
Not everyone was as measured as Cofrin, unfortunately, as Luke and his owner also received death threats. The Gainesville Fine Arts Association decided to cancel Luke's appearance, according to the Sun, and he remains at an elephant zoo called Two Tails Ranch.
Elephants made to paint have a long and controversial history. There's no evidence that Luke was treated inhumanely, but at some tourist destinations, trainers may teach elephants to make brushstrokes with their trunks via inhumane methods, such as goading with sharpened prods called bullhooks.
The founder of Two Tails Ranch, the private company that owns Luke, admits to using a bullhook but says Luke taught himself to paint. When painting is taught through positive reinforcement, it can be a relaxing and enriching opportunity for elephants, claims the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. One small study, however, found that it had little therapeutic effect for animals in zoos.
It's not the first time that Two Tails Ranch has attracted attention for its elephants. In October 2013, the ranch was under investigation following an elephant attack.
The tide slowly seems to be turning against performing elephants. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced in March that its elephants would retire by 2018 and live out the rest of their lives at a Florida sanctuary.
It remains to be seen how far Ringling Bros.'s decision will ripple out into the rest of the pachyderm performance world, but the "Greatest Show on Earth" has already come under fire for its planned nearly-three-year-long foot-dragging session. And PETA is now calling on UniverSoul Circus to retire its elephants.