At Duluth aquarium, otters indulge artistic side
DULUTH, Minn. - Zhoosh , like many artists, is particular about his tools. He prefers card stock to paper and finger paint to acrylics. And sometimes he's just not in the mood to be creative.
Anang has less of the artistic temperament. She's almost always up for painting and specializes in tail swipes and fur marks.
The river otters at the Great Lakes Aquarium double as artists in residence. A few times a week the duo spend their lunchtime out of the public's eye, circling card stock covered in smeared paint while they eat fish.
The better pieces are framed and on display outside the aquarium's gift shop, where they sell for about $35. The aquarium recently sold three in one morning, and in the summer they might sell 10 to 20 on the weekends.
"They sell wonderfully," said Cathie Dickey, who works in the gift shop. "There was a guy who came to the counter last week and said it was one of the best things he'd seen. It was something so different. He felt like he was bringing home part of the otters.
"You can't go to a museum and buy something like that."
Otter keeper Tara Lieberg started tapping into the otters' inner artists about a year ago after hearing about penguins that painted.
Lieberg started with blobs of paint on printer paper, but the paint was easy for the otters to avoid and they didn't seem to like the texture of the paper. Zhoosh put his face in the paint, she said, and had a sort of "I don't know what this is" response.
Lieberg tried again, this time smearing the paper with paint. The otters would step in the paint, but it still wasn't the right combination. Plus, the wet paper ripped easily.
Eventually she tried the smoother cardstock paper and children's paint, and that has been the right fit for the otters.
"I've also tried canvases," she said. "They aren't a fan of canvases."
Earlier this week, Lieberg smeared paint on paper and let Anang into a cage behind the otter exhibit. Zhoosh sat this round out.
Anang munched on silverside fish and dragged her tail across the paper, leaving swipes and footprints. These creative bursts last less than 15 minutes.
Lieberg critiques the paintings to determine whether they are worth framing.
"I like how they look like they're watercolor paintings," Lieberg said.
It's not an activity that most visitors to the aquarium see. The animals paint best in a room with the familiar aquarium personnel and sometimes a few calm visitors.
Lieberg can tell by looking at a piece which otter created it.
"Zhoosh holds his tail up," she said. "He rarely has fur or tail swipes. His are footprints here or there. (Anang's ) paintings are a lot of tail swipes."
Anang, 15, has been at the Great Lakes Aquarium since 2000. She was rehabbed at Sea World in Orlando, Fla., and was an exhibit animal at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, in Clearwater, Fla. Zhoosh is 12 and came to the aquarium soon after Anang . He was rehabbed in Virginia Beach. Both were orphaned as pups.
This isn't pure recreation. It's good for them to experience the textures associated with painting, Lieberg said.
"Tactile enrichment is good," she said. "It's good for their brain."
Alexis Berke , who works in education at the aquarium, said there are things to learn from the paintings.
"They're like otter signs in the mud, but in paint," she said. "It's like a field guide to otter painting."