Living Desert Zoo & Gardens State Park

Living Desert Zoo & Gardens State Park

Visit Maggie the Paiting Bear

Maggie, the painting bear at Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park is causing quite a stir in the southern New Mexico art community with her colorful, abstract-style paintings. In fact, hundreds of her watercolor paintings have been sold to art aficionados across the country in less than a year. Though Maggie’s technique is rather unusual, what is most astonishing is not only the fact that she’s less than two years old, but that she is a black bear.

Like every success story, Maggie’s roots come from humble beginnings. A wildlife rehabilitator in Georgia rescued Maggie, one year old at the time, after she was found in horrendous condition, barely hanging on to life near her sibling and mother, both dead, following a raid.

Maggie was aggressively but carefully rehabilitated and later taken by vehicle to what would become her new home, and ultimately her studio, at Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park in Carlsbad, New Mexico.

Living Desert Curator and caretaker, Holly Payne, has been with Maggie since the bear first set paws at the park. In fact, it was Payne who introduced Maggie to painting, believing that the process would be an effective bonding experience for the traumatized cub. Payne had heard about animal painters at other zoos around the country, but never by a black bear.

Maggie’s interest in painting was spurred when Payne laid out an array of non-toxic children’s tempura paints, next to several sheets of drawing paper. Maggie curiously began to slap her paws into the paint and walk on the sheets of paper, strewn across the floor. When Payne rewarded her with dried cranberries, that was the moment that Maggie’s painting career officially began and hasn’t slowed down since.

Although Maggie sometimes seems to prefer one color to another, she generally gravitates towards brighter colors, preferably hues of blue. Maggie has been known to return to the same color or a variation of it during the process, resulting with unique and colorful designs through the swirl or stomp of a paw.

Visitors aren’t able to watch Maggie in motion, since the 122-pound bear is still a wild animal that isn’t allowed to get too close to other humans. Payne is the only person who has seen the bear paint, and since it’s through a holding cage, it doesn’t allow for optimal photo-taking.

After an average 45-minute painting session, the painted paper is left to dry. Payne later stands over the large sheet of paper and divides it into several sections. The paintings are then matted, framed and displayed at Living Desert for visitors to purchase.

“Most people can’t believe that a bear actually did these paintings,” Payne says. “And the fact that the proceeds from her paintings aid in her care and that of other animals make it even better.”

Since August 2005, hundreds of paintings have been sold to visitors across the country, each piece raking in between $15 to $60 a painting. As expected, frames and matting can get costly when it comes to supporting Maggie’s colorful compulsion, but costs are subsidized through donations and profits from sales. Proceeds from the paintings go to the Friends of Living Desert Zoo and Gardens, which ultimately returns to the Zoo which make it possible to provide care and continue rescuing other animals in situations such as Maggie’s.

The park expects the 3-½ foot tall, 122-pound bear to grow to an estimated 5 feet, 300 pounds by the time she is full-grown. In the meantime, visitors interested in viewing or purchasing Maggie’s paintings while helping the park assist other animals can contact the Friends of Living Desert or Holly Payne at (505) 887-5516.

To view images of Maggie's work, vist the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park website.