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Animal artists at work at the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

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For more about the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo and its animals, go here

Friday, March 21, 2014 - 7:40 am

He's a young, up-and-coming artist who's already developed a following. Like Picasso, Van Gogh and other art greats, he's known by only one name — Hugh.

But unlike some great masters, Hugh, age 5, isn't driven to create. He just likes being around people.

“I think he likes the attention,” zookeeper Nikki Finch said of the Fort Wayne Children Zoo's most reliable artist, Hugh the penguin.

The zoo uses painting as one of many enrichment activities for its animals — a little bit of playtime that offers stimulation, said Cheryl Piropato, the zoo's education and communications director.

The zoo then uses the animals' creations for fundraising, selling them at the annual Zoobilee gala dinner and auction and using them as gifts for people, Piropato said.

Animals probably have been painting at the Fort Wayne zoo for about 10 years, Piropato said.

The trend started about 15 years ago in zoos with elephants, which began painting with their trunks, she said.

Some Fort Wayne zoo animals that have “painted” include dingoes, orangutans, lorikeets, black swans, Australian wood ducks, mongooses, honey badgers, and, of course, penguins.

The zoo uses the same type of tempura paint young children use for painting and finger painting.

Some animals have to be enticed to let flow with their creative side.

Mawson, one of the seven dingo pups born in January 2012, demonstrated his painting skills for food treats.

Zookeeper Kierra Klein squirted red, yellow and green paint in a metal food pan. Using food treats, Klein then enticed Mawson to put his front feet in the pan and then step with them on a sheet of art paper laid on the boardwalk of the Australian Adventure aviary. Klein occasionally had to lift his front feet into the pan so he could soak up more paint.

As with many animal artists, his work created a colorful collage of footprints going in a variety of directions.

“He definitely is the most willing to (paint),” Klein said. “His little sister doesn't like to get her feet wet.”

Orangutans Tengku, Melati and Tara use a different painting style. It also usually takes food treats to inspire them to make art.

Tuesday, Tara did her first painting by using a special brush with her hands and also with her mouth, holding the end of the brush between her lips like a drinking straw.

Zookeeper Angie Selzer stuck the handle end of the brush through the strong mesh side of Tara's off-exhibit enclosure while zookeeper Kristin Sliger tried to keep a canvas board in front of the wildly waving brush's wet paint end.

A bolt through the brush prevents the orangutans from pulling it into their enclosures.

Tengku, the zoo's 240-pound male orangutan, only paints while holding the paint brush in his mouth. Melati prefers to hold the paint brush with her hands.

The orangutans' art features bold brush strokes sweeping across the canvas board to create a colorful, abstract pieces.

Back in the penguin area, Hugh's easel is a slab of old, blue foam board laying on the ground.

Zookeeper Samantha Emberton lays a sheet of clean art paper in the middle of the foam board while Finch prevents the artist from losing focus and wandering off.

At one end of the foam board, Emberton squirts on paint and uses a gloved hand to smear it around into a small damp spot. Then she or Finch lift up Hugh and set him down — his legs kicking like a baby excited to dip its feet in bath water — into the wet paint.

The artist waddles across the paper, leaving a unique pattern of webbed footprints. After several passes across the paper in pink, yellow and green paints, another masterpiece is done.

And, being a penguin, Hugh always is dressed for his first exhibit grand opening.