From sea lions and elephants to snow leopards and even stingrays, the Oklahoma City Zoo has equipped a veritable menagerie of its residents to become painters over the years.
On Friday — which is International Orangutan Day — the zoo is putting up for international auction what’s believed to be the world’s first digital art non-fungible token designed by an orangutan — and possibly even the first NFT by any animal.
“It is a way to connect to people internationally, to maybe spark an interest in wildlife and to learn about this particular species and then dive in a little bit more and learn more about other species they can help,” Candice Rennels, public relations director for the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden, told The Oklahoman.
“The NFT world itself, it’s just a whole new audience of collectors that may not even know that animals have these capabilities and can paint.”
What are NFTs and why is the OKC Zoo selling them?
An NFT is essentially a piece of data that verifies you have ownership of a digital item, from a work of art to a clip of an NBA star’s game-winning shot.
While fungible items are easily interchangeable — for example, if two people each have a $20 bill, they could exchange them without any change to the value — non-fungible tokens are singular and cannot be directly exchanged for another. They are digital assets that signify unique collectibles that cannot be copied or replaced, and they are typically bought and sold with cryptocurrency.
Since NFTs initially emerged in 2014, interest in them has grown rapidly, particularly in the art world. Last year, the first purely digital work of art offered by a major auction house — “Everydays: The First 5000 Days,” a collage of digital images created by South Carolina artist Mike Winkelmann, also known as Beeple — sold for more than $69 million in an online auction by Christie’s.
Oklahoma City Zoo staffers are hopeful that the uniqueness of a digital art NFT created by an orangutan will attract a lot of interest and fetch a significant price for a good cause — conservation efforts on behalf of the great apes.
Get to know Elok, OKC Zoo orangutan and artist
A Sumatran orangutan, Elok, 21, has lived at the Oklahoma City Zoo since 2008, and he’s become quite the painter over the years.
“He’s very curious. He’s very interactive. … So, if he can be interactive with his environment, and he can be interactive with his caretakers, that’s the best form of enrichment for him. So, painting checks both of those boxes,” said Tracey Dolphin, the zoo’s curator of primates.
“He gets to actually physically manipulate something, a paintbrush, he gets to look at the colors when he’s painting, and he gets to manipulate the canvas. … And then the third piece of that is he’s actually getting a reward — his reinforcement is his favorite snacks — so I would say painting is absolutely one of his favorite enrichment activities.”
Part of the array of enrichment programs developed by the creatures’ caretakers, painting is an optional activity offered periodically to many animals at the Oklahoma City Zoo. Each species creates artworks with nontoxic paint using techniques specific to their natural behaviors and bodies: While some animals hold paintbrushes in their paws or mouths, others apply paint directly to canvas with their trunks, snouts or whole bodies.
“We can’t get them in there fast enough,” Rennels said. “It’s been the community, honestly, that has grown that program. … It really has become a success and is a great, great fundraising model for us here.”
Curious ape given the chance to become a digital artist
Known for their distinctive red fur, orangutans are intelligent apes native to the rain forests of the Southeast Asian islands of Borneo and Sumatra. In the wild, they spend nearly their entire lives in trees, so they are quite nimble.
When Becky Scheel and Mathieu Kuhne, the design team at Megafauna Studios, contacted the zoo to propose a new form of digital enrichment, Elok was a natural selection to become the zoo’s first digital artist.
“With his personality, how curious he is, how much he likes cognitive challenges — when we present him with something new, he’s not going to necessarily just get frustrated and walk away. He’s going to try to understand what we want. And he’s just very personable and very interactive with our care staff. So, we knew he would be the perfect candidate,” Dolphin said.
Instead of a traditional paint and canvas, Elok was handed a 2-foot digital brush to go with the 3-foot-by-4-foot screen just beyond his indoor habitat. When the orangutan moved the digital brush, a motion-detecting device made from a modified Xbox captured the movement and projected the design onto the digital screen. Both the finished creative product and the act of creation were recorded.
“When we do the normal painting, there’s contact. He can see it; he understands it. So, there was a learning curve to understand what we were asking him to do and how we can make that connection. It was a quick learning curve. … He got it pretty quickly,” Dolphin said.
Of course, serving up his favorite snacks — popcorn, prunes and animal crackers — helped the process along.
How can people buy Elok’s digital art NFTs?
Since becoming a digital artist, Elok has created 21 NFT designs. The zoo will keep one and plans to sell two of his digital artwork NFTs starting Friday on the online NFT auction site OpenSea.io.
One of the NFTs will be auctioned off between noon Friday and noon Monday. The other will be up for sale over those three days at the set price of three Ethereum, a type of cryptocurrency that varies in dollar value based on the market.
“We’re learning with this, too,” Rennels said. “We’ll start with the two this weekend … and we’ll just see how the interest is going.”
Since Elok designed the zoo’s first digital art NFTs, proceeds from their sale will go to a conservation organization working to help orangutans in northern Sumatra.
“There are three species of orangutans, and they’re all critically endangered, mostly because of habitat loss from a variety of human activities. … There’s conversion of their habitat for agriculture — especially for the production of palm oil — and there’s roads being built into those areas to get things like palm oil out to market. Then, there’s just logging and illegal hunting that happens in those areas,” said Rebecca Snyder, the Oklahoma City Zoo’s director of conservation science.
“We thought it was a great connection to have Elok creating art that then could help out his wild counterparts.”
For more information, go to www.okczoo.org/nft.
INTERNATIONAL ORANGUTAN DAY AT OKC ZOO
The Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden will celebrate International Orangutan Day from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday with activities including a children’s interactive handout with prizes, animal and conservation information stations, caretaker chats, Facebook Live videos, and themed photo opportunities.
The zoo is home to two Sumatran orangutans, a male, Elok, 21, and a female, Negara, 28.
For more information, go to okczoo.org.