Dumbo visits Dumbo

I came to DUMBO for the art last Sunday, but all I got was this quirky story:

Meet Dondi the painting elephant. Dondi is 33, 34 or 37 years old, depending on your source. She was rescued from Thai loggers at a young age, brought to the U.S., and raised by one-time trapeze performers Phil and Francine Schacht.

The D.U.M.B.O. Under The Bridge Arts Festival program promoted Dondi for her painting skills. But the elephant seems to have a lot more tricks up her trunk.

A cursory trip through google’s tubes shows Dondi has a history of performing circus stunts.

From a Circus Flora bio when Dondi was a featured performer last May:

…Dondi has appeared on the “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, with Bill Cosby on the “Merv Griffin Show” and with Betty White on “Circus of the Stars.” She is playful and can show behaviors that no other elephant in the world has ever learned, such as imitating a chicken, roars like a lion, gives raspberries, plays baseball and interacts positively with her human family.

Mr. Schacht told The Daily News that Dondi has been painting for a dozen years. Schacht reiterated to me after Dondi’s performance he considers the animal part of his family. “I have three boys and I treat her like a daughter,” Schacht said.

Check out his daughter’s work:

On Sunday, Schacht would dip a brush into a cans of paint and then help Dondi grasp its handle in her trunk. With a few rapid but breezy motions, Dondi lashed at the canvas Schacht held outward for the animal.

Meanwhile, local artist Nadia Fadeeva mimiced Dondi’s brush strokes on another canvas nearby. Zannah Mass from Two Trees, the development company which sponsored the festival, said at times both the elephant and the artist also collaborated on paintings.

(Nadia Fadeeva replicates Dondi’s technique)

Not everyone saw the value of Dondi’s art. Meet Brooklyn residents Shira Golding and Ari Moore :

(apologies for my horrible camera work. This was my first on-the-fly interview using an Olympus Stylus 710)

Golding and Moore had come out for the art but were disturbed by what they considered animal exploitation on display at the intersection of Main Street and Water Street. So they found some posters at a Bodega, wrote up some slogans — and made news.

(Ari Moore and Shira Golding)

“If an animal in a natural environment decided to pick up a twig and dip it in mud that would be an amazing thing,” Golding said. “That would be something to talk about and celebrate. This kind of thing is a construction.”

The protesters said they received a lot of support from people walking by. When I asked why there weren’t more people joining their protest, Moore said people “maybe don’t see the elephant as part of the community that needs our support — and they should.”

While not exactly defending Dondi’s artistic integrity, Breda Kennedy, executive director of the Dumbo Arts Center, said “I would get more upset about Guantanamo Bay.”

Kennedy said her group organized the festival to promote unknown artists. Two Trees, the development company which owns property in Dumbo and provides the arts center with free rent, asked if they could include the elephant. Kennedy said her group approved the request.

She added the combination of good weather, a media partnership with the Metropolitan Transportation Administration, and, yes, Dondi the painting elephant all drove up attendance compared to last year. “We promote totally unknown names and you only get them out through exposure,” Kennedy said.

Still, Jessica Levine, a project coordinator at the center said while organizers were happy with the larger crowd, not all members of Dumbo Arts Center were comfortable with the elephant’s presence at the festival. “My opinion is that it is exploitative,” Levine said.

Zannah Mass with Two Trees said Dondi’s performance was inspired by the work of artist Vitaly Komar, who planned to attend last weekend’s festival but suffered a family emergency. Mass said Komar founded elephant art academies in Thailand to rescue domesticated elephants that might ordinarily be put to sleep. “A brush is not that far off from a stick,” Mass said. “This isn’t abuse, this is collaboration.”

Mass said in Dondi’s case, there are other precautions the Schacht family takes to minimize the stress of traveling. For one, Dondi rides with mini-horses for company.

Phil Schacht, Dondi’s owner and handler said when on the road, the family stops every four hours for water and exercise.

This sign was visible to onlookers on Sunday too:

One of those onlookers was Kerry Cooke of Manhattan. Cooke said he brought his 4-year old son and 6-year old daughter to Dumbo because neither had ever seen an elephant up so close. “We’re elephant fans,” Cooke said. “He can just stand around. Doesn’t have to do anything.”


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11 Responses to “Dumbo visits Dumbo”

  1. Eliot C Says:

    This piece is outstanding Dan.

    My favorite two things:

    “I don’t know this animal personally . . . .”

    Also, travelling with the mini-horses. This elephant’s life sounds pretty amazing to me. I wish I had mini-horses with me on all my road trips to keep me calm.

  2. Linnea Covington Says:

    Oh how fun! I really liked the angle you took and the novelty, well that’s obvious! do they sell the art? if so, how much? wouldn’t it be cool to have a painting in your house done by an elephant?! Haha! Please write more.

  3. Ari Says:

    Thanks so much for blogging this! People need to know there are sanctuaries for rescued animals – far more compassionate alternatives than barred trucks and forced tricks.

  4. jenny Says:

    i forgot about your blog then remember because of the facebook post. i love it!!! i am now moving into my favorites category and promise to check it immediately after tmz and perez. this story is great! the video makes it even better!

    love you!

  5. jenny Says:


    *moving it into

  6. R. Ortiz Says:

    Great work Dan!

  7. R. Ortiz Says:

    By the way, I added it to digg.

  8. A peeve of mine Says:

    […] was also a little bit of a protest in front of that. Some women who felt that it was inappropriate for the elephant to be used in this […]

  9. bigfanx Says:

    I agree with Golding and Moore. This particular event is not all that this elephant does. Dondi is a “trained circus performer” and MUST TRAVEL frequently in that trailer, chained at the ankles. She is a lone elephant… no herd, no other elephant companions. Mini-horses are not a substitute for a REAL HERD. Her solitary ‘confinement’ is against this species’ instincts and nature.

    When she’s not performing, Dondi is held in a small tent, by herself. She displays neurotic behavior frequently, bobbing her head up and down, swaying from side-to-side, moving forward then back… repeating the movements constantly. WHY is she kept by herself? She needs OTHER ELEPHANT COMPANIONS.

    Dondi belongs with other animals of her species… not in the cramped quarters of a trailer or chained in a tent. She deserves a sanctuary that can fulfil her needs… her psychological needs as well as her physical needs.

    When was the last time Dondi was in a mud wallow? When was the last time Dondi got to make a few choices for herself… to do what she decided to do… not what humans decided that she should do.

    ARGGGHHH … captivity in a circus really sucks!

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