SCOTTSBLUFF — Chimpanzee Jewelle reached her lips through a gap in her cage, silently demanding more grape juice. She had, after all, held up her end of the bargain. In fact, the paint brush was still in her hand.
“They get juice when they paint,” Nancee Hutchinson, the head zoo keeper at Riverside Discovery Center, said. “That’s their favorite treat.”
Three of RDC’s five Chimpanzee’s seem to have an artistic streak.
“We’re still working with the other two,” Hutchinson said. “Hopefully, they’ll start painting soon.”
Sign up for Kearney Hub daily news updates
She said having the primates paint serves a dual purpose: Their artwork can be sold in the gift shop to generate a little extra revenue and it stimulates the chimps’ minds.
“They are very intelligent,” Hutchinson said. “We give them enrichment items every day and have training sessions daily.”
Enrichment activities, including painting, also help the chimps build a bond with the staff, which can make things easier if one of the animals needs medical care.
“Chimp paintings are unique,” Hutchinson said.
While most of the animal art at RDC is done by laying down a canvas and having the animals walk on it, the chimps take a more traditional artistic approach.
“We have a specialized brush that we can give them through the cage,” Hutchinson said. “Then they’ll paint on whatever we’re holding.”
Many times it’s canvas, but the animals put a creative touch on variety of other things including magnets and wine glasses.
“Each one is different,” Hutchinson said. “Each chimp has a different style.”
In Jewelle’s case, that style is sort of jabbing at the canvas with a paint brush. Christa and Rebecca each practice dainty strokes, she said.
“Jewelle is more aggressive about it,” Hutchinson said, laughing.
The paintings are done when the Gift Shop needs a new assortment.
“Probably once a month or so,” Hutchinson said. “Right now, we’re painting more often for the membership gift stockings that we’re selling.”
The customized stockings cost $99.99 and come stuffed with an annual family membership, an ornament painted by the chimps, animal-themed holiday socks, candy, cocoa and either two Bear Brother plushes or a single, larger Doc the Bison plush.
“It’s a great gift,” Hutchinson said, and with each stocking containing a one-of-a-kind masterpiece. “It’s really unique.”
The gift shop is open during regular zoo hours daily from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Among the art inside are pieces by the chimps, as well as a canvases by the resident tiger, spider monkeys, bobcat and opossum.