CNBC Kids Report: An Elephant Who Paints!

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  • At the Buffalo Zoo in Buffalo, NY, the elephants do all kinds of things to keep busy — they have scavenger hunts and even have watermelon-eating contests.
  • Only Surapa took to the canvas.
Surapa the elephant paints at the Buffalo Zoo.
Cindy Perman | CNBC
Surapa the elephant paints at the Buffalo Zoo.

You now the saying, "An elephant never forgets." Well it's true — elephants are super smart and always looking for the next challenge.

At the Buffalo Zoo in Buffalo, NY, the elephants do all kinds of things to keep busy — they have scavenger hunts and even have watermelon-eating contests.

Surapa, a 30-year-old elephant the trainers describe as spunky and "a bit of a diva," has discovered her hidden talent is painting. She paints year round, and her artwork is sold in the zoo's gift shop for $40, which helps to raise extra money for the zoo.

She has two main styles, former trainer Melissa King said — a circular swirl and what the zoo calls "blades of grass" — swipes up and down with the paintbrush. Sometimes they wind up looking like things — like tulips or hearts — but mostly they're abstract, King said.

The zoo folks are not sure she has a favorite color, but when left to her own devices she seems to go for yellow first.

"It's really amazing because this I've never seen it before," said 11-year old Abaigeal.

In case you're wondering, elephants are individuals, much like humans — not all of them paint. They tried it with all the elephants — one of them just stood there with the brush. The other tried to eat it!

Only Surapa took to the canvas.

Some of the other animals at the zoo — sea lions, monkeys, lizards, snakes and giraffes — make paintings occasionally for certain promotions, like the Art Gone Wild event in September. But none of them paint as much or are as talented as Surapa.

The zoo has even recruited Surapa to help decorate for the holidays and bring in some extra money by painting Christmas ornaments. They are sold for $10 to $15 depending on the size. She also sometimes paints wine glasses for special events at the zoo.

She doesn't paint every day — only if she's in the mood. The zoo said she probably paints several hundred items per year.

Here's how it works: One of the trainers holds the glass or ornament and Surapa walks up, holding the paintbrush in her trunk, focuses carefully and delivers a few brush strokes to the item.

Surapa paints a wine glass.
Source: The Buffalo Zoo
Surapa paints a wine glass.

The job "pays" pretty well — she is rewarded with small food items such as jellybeans, loaves of bread, whole cobs of corn and apples. The zoo gets to keep the money from paintings and other items sold since, um, elephants don't have bank accounts (yet).

Surely with an elephant being so big and the glass items being so delicate she's broken a few, right?

"Actually, the only broken ornaments are from us keepers when we hang them up to dry!" King said. Surapa has never broken a single glass or ornament.

"She doesn't ever break the glass things! Because she's a big elephant and I would think she probably would," Abaigeal said.

"With the smaller stuff like wine glasses and ornaments it requires a little more focus," King said. "Instead of using her elephant strength, she has to focus on the task at hand! And she really seems to enjoy it."

Some of the other money-raising programs the zoo has implemented since the recession are "Buy the Animals Lunch," which raised about $1,200 to $1,500 a year, selling "Adopt-an-Animal" limited-edition ornaments, which has brought in $3,000 to $5,000 per year, and the "Tops Shop for the Animals" program, where they ask visitors to pick up something extra for the animals when they shop at Tops grocery store. That's raised $1,500 to $2,000 a year. Some of the items on their grocery list are animal crackers, cereal, beef or chicken broth, bird seed, cranberry sauce, dried fruit, honey, jams and jellies, Kool-Aid, maple syrup and nuts.

Additional reporting by Isabel.

This is a story that was made up by the Team Blue kids in an exercise for CNBC's Bring Your Child to Work Day. Surapa the elephant, however, is real. She is still painting at the Buffalo Zoo in Buffalo, NY.