Kara the elephant curls up her trunk to grab a paint brush and then maneuvers it across a white canvas that keeper Amber Talley holds in front of a half-dozen visitors at Fresno Chaffee Zoo.
It's not a scene many get to see, because it's behind the scenes at the rear of the elephant enclosure.
Once in a while a brush becomes a snack, but most of the time Kara takes her work seriously and slides her brush with long strokes along the white backdrop until streaks of color emerge. Talley hands the artwork to a zoo visitor who paid for the privilege of a behind-the-scenes tour. As a reward, Kara munches a snack of carrots and celery.
These new zoo tours began over the summer and are a way for the zoo to raise money while bringing visitors closer to the animals.
About a half-dozen tours are available ranging from Sea Lion Cove to elephants, reptiles and hooved critters. Prices vary based on the tours, which could last from 45 minutes to six hours. Zoo visitors also can shadow keepers as part of their tours.
A tour on Monday combined a bit of all the offerings. In addition to elephant painting, visitors petted and fed Galapagos tortoises and kangaroos and saw the Sea Lion Cove food preparation area.
"I love the idea of behind-the-scenes encounters and getting people to be hands-on so they can love these animals the way we love them," zookeeper Alex Alamar said.
As Alamar gave a lesson in tortoise history and etiquette, Knobby, the zoo's 50-something Galapagos tortoise, guided his large body against the gate in anticipation of an early afternoon feeding.
"We do a lot of work with these animals and people don't see them the way we see them, especially reptiles," Alamar said. "People don't see their facial expressions or understand that they can be affectionate."
She said the Galapagos tortoise was used for meat by Spanish sailors over the centuries and their numbers have dwindled from the hundreds of thousands to about 15,000 today.
Sandy Schmeling, 66, of Clovis was intrigued by the tortoise's interest in human companionship.
"I was surprised at how soft the skin was and how much he enjoyed being touched," said Schmeling, a new zoo docent.
He said he had not previously met the zoo's tortoises, animals that have captured his imagination for years.
"It was incredible being able to get down there and being able to touch an animal that most of the world only gets to look at and that is a highly endangered and protected species," he said.
Paige Sowden, 9, rubbed Knobby's neck, which he stretched longer for caressing.
"It felt like wrinkled-up cloth," she said.
One of his feeders, Paige's younger brother, Ethan, 5, was fascinated by the way Knobby ate a banana he fed to him: "He eats the peel and the banana."
Other visitors, unaware of the tours, said it looked like fun.
"We saw it going on and it looks neat," said Kelly Chavez, flanked by her husband, Orlando, and Junior, their 3-year-old son.
The tours are intended to make a lasting impression on visitors, said Scott Barton, the zoo's director.
"This is another way of accomplishing our mission of building a connection between people and animals," he said. "I don't know a better way than offering these experiences."
Next year, the zoo will add swimming with sea lions as part of the tours, he said, but not until the animals become more accustomed to strangers.
"Very few places do it and we would really like to roll it out successfully," Barton said.
For more information about Fresno Chaffee Zoo's behind-the-scenes tours, call (559) 498-5920.
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6166, firstname.lastname@example.org or @beebenjamin on Twitter.