The steady trunk of an artist

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By Mark Scohier, Staff writer

Luke was busy snorting in the dirt and kicking up a huge cloud of sunlit dust when Patricia Zerbini yelled his name to get his attention.  He looked at her, and noticing what she held in her hands, turned and plodded toward her with the same enthusiasm children show when they jump out of bed Christmas morning.
When he made it to where Zerbini was standing, she handed him a brush loaded with paint.  Luke snorted again and walked over to a specially prepared easel perched in the dirt not far from where a large crowd had gathered.
It’s not unusual for crowds to gather when Luke paints.  He’s one of the county’s better-known artists. He’s also a 12,000-pound Asian elephant standing nearly 12 feet tall who, in the span of about 10 minutes, managed to crank out a work of art that was later auctioned off for $120.
About 60 people showed up Wednesday to watch Luke paint and to take part in Elephant Appreciation Day at Two Tales Ranch Inc., in Williston.  
Zerbini, owner and operator of the ranch, said Wednesday the event was to raise awareness about the animals and help fund the construction of a new pool for the four elephants living there.
Wednesday’s trunk-painted masterpiece was rendered in fall colors and, to the imaginative eye, revealed the image of an elephant-shaped mass, complete with an ear, an eye and an extended trunk.
“Everything that he does we do find somewhere an elephant.  It’s not always a perfect elephant, but with an abstract mind you can make it out,” Zerbini said.  
And to her credit, most of the staff and volunteers at the event were wearing shirts gracing recognizable portraits of elephants painted by the 25-year-old tusk-bearing artist.
But Zerbini, who comes from nine generations of exotic animal keepers, said she doesn’t know why Luke paints.
“I don’t know where it comes from. I never taught him to do it.”
She said Luke’s career as an artist started more than 20 years ago when two of her sons were outside painting on an easel and decided to hand a brush over to Luke.
“He’s just a real character,” she said.  “He really likes it.”
Animal psychologist Clive D. Wynne, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Florida, said Thursday not a lot about the thinking processes of elephants is known. The large and sometimes-dangerous nature of elephants makes them difficult to study, he said.  
However, Wynne said a study was done a few years ago that seems to suggest elephants might have the capacity to recognize themselves.
According to that study, done by two scientists from Emory University, three Asian elephants from the Bronx Zoo who were tested for mirror self-recognition tested positive for recognizing themselves, a trait only previously known to occur in humans, some apes and dolphins.
Self-recognition is “considered an indicator of self-awareness…Mirror self-recognition is thought to correlate with higher forms of empathy and altruistic behavior,” the study stated.
A paper published in 2007 by three scientists from the University of California called “Large brains and cognition: Where do elephants fit in?” states that elephant brains excel in areas associated with long-term memory, social memory and the ability to remember geographic locations and routes.
In addition, “Elephants appear to be unique among non-human species in their reactions to disabled and deceased conspecifics…”
Elephants have been observed trying to rescue other elephants from dangerous situations, often trying to lift wounded elephants to a safer location, according to the paper.  They have also been observed investigating, standing guard over or even trying to bury the bodies of other dead elephants.
Like Zerbini, Wynne said he doesn’t know what makes an elephant such as Luke want to paint. He said he suspects that most have been trained or conditioned to receive some sort of reward.
Still, he said he’s seen paintings done by elephants in Thailand and admits that the works of art are not without appeal.
“It’s certainly a beautiful demonstration, “ he said.  “They always kind of come out abstract, though they’re always aesthetically pleasing.  I think it would be fascinating to study more deeply.”
Zerbini’s elephants are all of the Asian variety, she said.  The ranch serves as a place for elephants to rehabilitate, breed, receive temporary housing or retire and also is a place for people to learn more about elephants.
Both Asian and African elephants are in trouble in the wild.  Asian elephants are endangered and African elephants are considered vulnerable. The World Wildlife Fund estimates the Asian elephant’s population in the wild to be between 40 to 50,000 animals.  Poaching, habitat loss and conflict with humans are attributed to the decline of both species.
    That’s why Zerbini said she would keep doing what she’s doing.  Educating the public about the animals she’s worked with for 40 years is the most gratifying part of her work, she said.
“Elephants are the perfect species. Gentle giants. And very intelligent.”