Animal Art Therapy: Painting Primates Produce Beautiful Portraits in Safe Haven

March 2, 2010 | By Kris O'Donnell | Category: Entertainment | 20 comments
Tags: strange but true, entertainment, adoption & rescue

Bailey, one of the artists of the Jungle Friends primate sanctuary (Zootoo Pet News Photo Courtesy of Jungle Friends)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. - When intern Katie O'Rahilly readies the paints and canvas, she knows some anxious would-be artists await her.

"They'll turn their heads over and analyze where they're putting the paint and be very delicate about it," O'Rahilly said. "I like seeing the personal variation between individuals and painting techniques."

But O'Rahilly isn't talking about painters of the human variety. She's talking about monkeys. O'Rahilly interns at the Jungle Friends primate sanctuary, located on 12 acres in Gainesville, Florida. The sanctuary is a permanent safe haven for monkeys that are former pets, have been abused, used in research or confiscated from authorities. The facility currently houses 120 monkeys and has an ever-growing waiting list.

Kari Bagnall founded Jungle Friends more than 13 years ago. She reports that the idea of giving the primates the tools to paint came about by accident, after she observed Connie, one of the first primates at the sanctuary, during mealtimes.

"One day, she took her oatmeal and baby food and just smeared it all over the wall very artistically," Bagnall said. "I thought, 'Wow, that's really pretty. We should put that on canvas.'"

So, Bagnall put some non-toxic paint on a canvas and gave it to Connie.

"I picked up a stick and broke it in two, then put it in the paint and put it on the canvas, and I started drawing on the canvas," Bagnall said. Connie immediately got the picture.

"She looked at me and looked at it and she ran down in her habitat," Bagnall remembers. "She got a stick, broke it in half and reached through the bars and started painting with a stick. She's one of our most talented monkeys."

Jungle Friends provides sanctuary for mainly New World monkeys such as marmosets, capuchins, spider monkeys, squirrel monkeys and tamarins. But Bagnall finds that painting appeals mostly to the capuchins and the spider monkeys.

"There are monkeys screaming with their hands out because they know what it is and they want to paint, and there are other monkeys that could care less," Bagnall said.

O'Rahilly says capuchins are often the most prolific painters, but each monkey has a different style.

"Connie and Iris are both very gentle and will take more time," O'Rahilly said. "Chucky and Teto are rough little hooligans. They'll splash around in the paint and slap it around. Their paintings always look more wild, like them."

Jungle Friends sells the paintings, and proceeds from the sales are funneled right back into the sanctuary.

Although the monkeys enjoy painting, Bagnall finds a serious purpose behind these works of art.

"People that come here and see the big beautiful habitats and monkeys playing in the trees say, "Wow, this is great,'" Bagnall said. "But that is not the way they are meant to live and in their heart of hearts they know this isn't right."

Whether she's speaking to groups or visitors to the sanctuary, Bagnall's message is the same: monkeys don't make good pets.

And although she and the staff do everything they can to give the monkeys the best life possible, Bagnall says she ultimately has only one goal.

"I want to be out of the monkey business. All sanctuaries want to be out of business."

If you would like to learn more about Jungle Friends or check out some of the paintings by Connie, Iris, Chucky and Teto, visit their website at

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Comments (19)

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Diane H.

Diane H.
5 years ago

That must be quite a sight! How great to give them something they enjoy doing.

Good Point | Reply ›

Denise L.

Denise L.
5 years ago

A wonderful enrichment activity for those rescued animals!

Good Point | Reply ›

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