When Joanne Lefson of Cape Town, South Africa, rescued a little piglet from an industrial hog farm, she didn't expect swine with a flair for the artistic.
At her new home at Farm Sanctuary SA, the female pig began showing interest in the paintbrushes lying around her pen. They "were the only thing she didn't eat," Lefson quips.
So the rescuer decided to train the pig—named Pigcasso—to paint using a positive-reinforcement technique in which animals receive food rewards. (See swimming pigs and other water-loving animals.)
Eye of the Beholder
Saying animals can produce art is tricky, says Allison Kaufman, a research scientist at the University of Connecticut who studies innovation and creativity in animals.
That's because art is generally meant to convey "meaning, self-expression, or beauty"—and Kaufman has never seen evidence that "non-human animals have the cognitive capacity for that type of self-insight or intentionality." (Read more about animal intelligence in the magazine.)
That said, painting can be enriching for captive animals, she says. "It's fun, creative, and great cognitive stimulation," Kaufman says.
And of course, the animals' masterpieces are in the eye of the beholder.
The fact Pigcasso gets positive reinforcement for painting does not "minimize what she's doing or the quality of her paintings."
Creativity is a different cup of tea, and is generally defined as something "novel and appropriate to the task," Kaufman notes.
"We have some really clear examples of animals being creative by coming up to solutions to problems they've never seen before," says Lauren Stanton, a Ph.D. student at the University of Wyoming.
Stanton should know. During a recent experiment with captive raccoons, one of the animals simply knocked the study appartus over to get the food reward—a solution the test designers hadn't even thought of.
Stanton also worked as a white rhino keeper at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, where she worked with a painting rhino named Stubby. The keepers would put paint on the canvas and Stubby would move his horns around in it.
Kristina Horback, assistant professor of Animal Science at University of California at Davis, asserts that many animals have natural instincts for art and creativity.
Horback considers male bowerbirds, which lavishly decorate their nests with mushrooms, nuts, beetles—even caterpillar feces—to be artists of the wild.
In his book The Ape and the Sushi Master, primatologist Franz de Waal describes how captive chimpanzees display deliberation and pattern-making in their paintings—visible in this video from the Primatological Research Center at Kyoto University.
Will Work For Food
When she paints, Pigcasso is using skills that come naturally, too.
"Pigs investigate their environment with their snout and mouth and actively grab, bite, lick, move, and root objects when given the chance," Horback says.
The animals are also dichromatic, meaning they only see blues, greens, and yellows—though Pigcasso's palette also has red.
For her part, Lefson believes creativity is something that happens spontaneously, and not something to be overanalyzed. (Read: "Were the First Artists Mostly Women?")
"The gift is just to look at [Pigcasso's art] and not be ruled by trying to define it," she says.
After all, Pigcasso works for food—just like any professional artist.