Rainbo has been looking forward to painting all morning. Dancing anxiously on his stand, he performs a quick pirouette when Amber Zelmer approaches with his modified paint brushes and palette of colors.
Rainbo, a 26-year-old eclectus parrot who hails from the South Pacific, has been painting artistic masterpieces at the Houston Zoo for nearly two decades.
“Parrots are very smart and they need a lot of interaction,” said Zelmer, senior keeper of the children’s zoo within the Houston Zoo. “Whether it is painting, interacting with visitors … or talking to us with the over 30 vocalizations he knows, we use enrichment programs to keep his mind stimulated and keep him active.”
Just like hospitals in the Texas Medical Center provide therapy for patients, the zoo offers enrichment programs for animals.
Although caring for sick animals is not the main function of the zoo, enrichment programs are an essential part of daily life. Because the animals are no longer in their natural environments, the zoo uses painting and other activities to help encourage natural responses.
“These activities help to stimulate the same sort of thinking process in the animals as they would have in the wild,” Zelmer explained. “Obviously, a wild parrot is not going to be painting—he would be out searching for food, searching for material to build a nest and interacting with other parrots in a social way. When I train with him, that fulfills his need for his social interaction and he gets food for completing a trained behavior.”
Biting down on his whittled paintbrush, Rainbo uses water-based, non-toxic paints to make delicate strokes and loops with reds, purples and blues.
“Rainbo is one of the best painters at the zoo,” Zelmer said. “He and the other parrots and the elephants are the only animals that can paint with brushes, which makes their work look more human.”
When Rainbo and the other animals finish their paintings, the works are sold online and at fundraisers. For zoo visitors who want a more comprehensive experience, a special program allows them to watch the animals paint and then purchase one of the paintings from that session.
All proceeds from animal paintings go to animal conservation.
“Whenever we sell a painting, we use that money to help animals across the world that might be endangered or sick,” Zelmer said. “It not only gives Rainbo a job to keep his mind active, but he is helping other animals, too.”
6200 Hermann Park Dr.
Information: 713-533-6500 or houstonzoo.org
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