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Creature Creations

This season’s artist to watch? Scabbers the snake.

by Katie Kerns Geer

Lucky Peanut

The benefits of creating art extend to everyone—and that goes for otters, turtles, and snakes. Over at the South Carolina Aquarium, animals are painting as part of an animal enrichment program, providing the little critters with the opportunity to explore and express natural behaviors.

“Enrichment is integral to animal welfare, and we are constantly coming up with new and exciting ways to enrich the animals in our care,” says Josh Zalabak, a senior biologist at the South Carolina Aquarium. Allowing the animals to tap into their inner Jackson Pollock is just one of the ways they’re doing that. “Animal art is an enrichment that helps promote increased physical and mental stimulation as well as a natural curiosity.”

How does it work? “We are careful to make sure that the animals are actually the ones making the art, and not us,” Zalabak notes. To do that, Zalabak and his team place blank canvases and pools of animal-safe paint on a table. Then, they let the animals loose and give them the freedom to work their magic. “If they decide to walk through the paint and then onto the canvas, that’s great,” Zalabak says. “But that is completely up to them.” Although visitors can sometimes get a peek at the process during educational programs, the art-making usually takes place behind closed doors.


Turtles, otters, and snakes are all on the Aquarium’s roster of budding artists. And while Zalabak says that turtles are probably the cutest to watch at work, he’s a big fan of snake art. “We mostly paint with one snake in particular, Scabbers the black rat snake,” Zalabak says. “He is the right level of active to create very cool swooping patterns that really highlight the way a snake moves. In some instances, you can even distinguish each scale on his stomach.”

Zalabak explains the main purpose of painting is to provide mental stimulation, exercise, and a temporary change in environment—imperative to wellbeing when you don’t live in the wild. “The animals we use to paint are being given the opportunity to explore new situations and experience different stimuli,” he says. “Many of them show a natural curiosity and are fairly active during a painting session.

Want to add a Scabbers original or a painting by Ace the North American river otter or Lucky Peanut the turtle to your collection? You’re in luck—the finished pieces are sold in the Aquarium’s gift shop.

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Posted in Visual on November 15, 2019 (Issue 44: Fall 2019) by Matt Mill.

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