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Paintings by Sea Lions

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Volunteering | Mammals

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Hugh

Some of our intelligent and highly talented sea lions are learning a new way to express themselves.They are adding the art of painting to their abilities. Our staff has trained three of our sea lions, Milo, Harpo and Parker to hold paint brushes in their mouths and stroke the bristles onto canvas. Some of the results are quite interesting. I recently watched Milo produce a painting that resembles the skillful strokes of a Shodo or Sumi-e (Japanese Calligraphy and Brush Painting) master. Milo used a quick, forceful technique that reminded me of an old Shodo Master that I met years ago. It actually made me kind of jealous because I remembered when I tried my hand at Shodo years ago (brushing my name in Japanese characters) the results ended up being kind of wimpy looking. Not at all like the strong strokes on Milo’s painting.

Harpo the sea lion has a more subtle approach to painting. His work has more of a watercolor impressionists look to them. Think Monet with flippers. And then there’s Parker the sea lion who, being the creative genius that he is, combines a bit of both styles in his work.

So how did the sea lions learn how to paint?

The mammalogists first trained them to hold a specially made T-shaped paint brush holder in their mouth. They were then reinforced with a bridge (a whistle or the word “good!”) when they touched a painter’s canvas or board stock held by another staffer. A bridge lets the sea lion know when they have done something the trainer wanted and that a reward will follow. It bridges the gap between a correct behavior and a reward like food or a tactile rub down. Later the animals were reinforced when they moved the brushes even slightly. The critters soon got the idea that holding and moving the brush against the canvas or board stock was a good thing. It soon led to the animals applying various colors of paint and producing some quite interesting pieces of art. It’s actually now a quite fun activity for both trainer and sea lion although sometimes the trainers end up with more paint on them than on the canvas.

In a bit of exciting news: Some of these pieces may be up for auction at the upcoming Sea Fare. Think of how cool it would be to have art work done by one of the Aquarium of the Pacific’s sea lions hanging on your living room wall. So if you’re at this year’s Sea Fare make sure you check out the paintings by our pinnipeds.

Paintings by Sea Lions
A painting by Parker the sea lion which to me looks like his impression of a bird.
Paintings by Sea Lions
Harpo the sea lion working with mammalogist Caitlin on his painting technique.
Paintings by Sea Lions
Harpo the sea lion holding the specially made brush holder.
Paintings by Sea Lions
Parker the sea lion working on another masterpiece.  | R. Riggs

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Donna Barstow

Thursday, September 24, 2009 05:37 PM

Can they see the paper or colors as they paint? Are they colorblind?

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Hugh

Thursday, September 24, 2009 06:30 PM

@ Donna,

The sea lions can see the paper, as for the colors they paint, I believe studies have shown that they have dichromatic vision and can see some colors in the blue green spectrum.

Good question.

Hugh

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C. J. Dablo

Sunday, September 27, 2009 10:27 AM

Oh, that is so exciting! How long have they been painting?

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Hugh

Monday, September 28, 2009 11:59 AM

Our sea lions just learned how to paint this summer. They’re bright animals and fast learners.

Hugh

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Donna Barstow

Sunday, October 11, 2009 04:53 PM

Sorry, this will be my last comment on this site. I just noticed that you removed the link to my blog, and you don’t allow links in the form.

This is not what blogs are supposed to be about, and I think it’s selfish and self-centered of you to de-personalize and diminish the good-hearted readers of this blog.

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Anitza

Monday, October 12, 2009 11:42 AM

Donna,

I don

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Angela

Monday, July 19, 2010 08:18 PM

do you know why there are these tube-looking things on your whistles?And where did you get them?

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Hugh

Tuesday, July 20, 2010 03:36 PM

@ Angela,

The tubes you see on the end of our whistles are actually air tubes (for aquarium air pumps). It gives us a soft surface to hold in our teeth when using the whistles.

Hugh

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Angela

Friday, August 06, 2010 04:27 PM

Do you know where to get the air tubes?     

 

And what happens if a person (with no marine mammal training expierence) trains an animal?

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Hugh

Tuesday, August 24, 2010 10:51 PM

@ Angela,

You can get the tubes at any Aquarium supply store.  As for what happens when a person with no marine mammal training experience trains an animal…It depends on how much the person prepares in advance of training.  If you go in without studying a book or two on animal training you may find it more difficult to get the critter to do what you want than if you had spent the time learning what to do beforehand.

All blogs and comments represent the views of the individual authors and not necessarily those of the Aquarium.

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