Thursday, February 7, 2008 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ape and art drawn together at Woodland Park Zoo

Seattle Times staff reporter

Where to bid

To view and bid on Towan's art, visit and search for "Woodland Park Zoo."

Orangutans at the Woodland Park Zoo are going ape over art.

Zoo officials hope that two paintings by resident orangutan Towan will fetch a fine price on eBay.

Towan, who will celebrate his 40th birthday later this month and is one of five orangutans at the zoo, is an accomplished artist, say zookeepers, who encourage the creatures to express themselves on canvas.

Already, bidding on the two Towan paintings has eclipsed $800. The works will remain for sale on the site until early afternoon on Friday.

"All the orangs like to paint," said orangutan keeper Felicity Oram. "It's an enrichment activity. They are very visual creatures and are higher apes and like to express themselves."

She said each ape has his own style and that painting is one of Towan's favorite activities. He uses a paint-filled pen, unlike other orangutans, who paint with their tongues, Oram said. That's why the zoo uses only nontoxic paint.

She said Towan "definitely takes time composing."

The only problem, Oram said, is getting the paintings when the apes are finished with them.

Towan, however, slides his under the doorway when he's done, unlike some of the other orangutans who tend to tear up their work.

Carolyn Austin, another orangutan zookeeper, said Towan will work for two hours on one piece; she offers him colored chalk and paint-filled pens and he'll choose the colors he wants. Towan likes primary colors, Austin said.

Towan and his twin sister, Chinta, were born at the zoo with much notoriety as the first twin orangutans born in captivity.

Austin said the apes are so intelligent they can understand certain words and gestures of the zookeepers. If she says the word "trade," Towan knows to trade his finished canvas for a blank one.

By far, she said, Towan is the most-accomplished artist in the zoo's orangutan family. But he doesn't seem to mind parting with his paintings. "It's like 'I did it and it's done,' " said Austin, adding that the paintings have previously been sold at local events. One of them fetched $1,000 at a zoo auction.

Towan's paintings are on 12-by-16-inch canvases, matted and framed, with a certificate of authenticity.

The money raised will go to support the International Conference of Zookeepers, which will be held at the Woodland Park Zoo in September 2009. It will be the first time the conference has been held in the U.S., said Austin, the organizer.

This is the second time the zoo has sold animal art on eBay. When the Seattle Seahawks were in the Super Bowl two years ago, elephants at the zoo created paintings in Seahawk colors that fetched nearly $1,300 in the online auction.

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company


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