National Zoo Debuts New, Larger Home for Elephants |

National Zoo Debuts New, Larger Home for Elephants

Michael E. Ruane
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON – Ambika was finishing up a hectic morning. There had been all the hubbub over the National Zoo’s new elephant exhibit. VIPs everywhere. The media. It was more than a 62-year-old pachyderm could take. By 11 a.m. she was off by herself in one of the new stalls, with straw piled on her head, trying to relax.

It was a lot for a matronly Asian elephant, on top of the swanky new home that keepers said she still is unsure about. She had lived in her quarters in the zoo’s old elephant house for decades. One zoo official said acclimating Ambika to the new digs is like “moving your grandmother.”

But there was no ambivalence among officials of the zoo and the Smithsonian Institution during Thursday’s unveiling of phase one of the zoo’s new Elephant Trails exhibit, which opens to the public Friday.

“This is powerful,” said Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough.

“Very excited,” said Dennis Kelly, the zoo’s director. “Excited and proud.”

The newly finished section – the first of a two-part, $52 million project – expands the zoo’s former elephant area with a 5,700-square-foot barn, two new yards (one with a pool), and a quarter-mile walkway through woods, where the animals can exercise.

The complex is enclosed with heavy-grade steel and cable that the elephant manager said could withstand the impact of a 15,000-pound elephant galloping at 35 miles per hour.

Although officials said they do not anticipate such an event, elephants do get that big and can run that fast. One of the zoo’s elephants, Shanthi, 34, weighs 9,000 pounds. Her son, Kandula, 8, now weighs about 5,600 pounds but will probably grow to weigh 11,000 or 12,000 pounds, the zoo said.

The new area also includes an “outpost” adjacent to the lower yard, where visitors can see interactive exhibits about elephant conservation, and study such things as the in-depth science of elephant dung. “National Zoo is actually a world leader in the science of poop of all kinds of animals, elephants especially,” said Brandie Smith, a senior zoo curator and elephant expert.

The zoo has gone to great effort to try to become a center for elephant research, sending such animals as its popular Nile hippo, Happy, to the Milwaukee zoo to make way for the new facility.

The zoo currently has only three Asian elephants, but officials said that when the project is complete in 2013 it could house between eight and 10 elephants and their young.

“Asian elephants are in real trouble,” Kelly told an audience of well-wishers. “We think as few as 30 to 40,000 Asian elephants are left on the planet … and they’re under siege every day.” The zoo’s project could be one of the things that helps save them, he said.

Smith said the new facility is “great for our elephants because it increases the variety, the complexity of their habitat, and that’s the thing that elephants need. It’s not so much about big, but it’s about complex: their interactions with each other, with their keepers and with their habitat. And that’s what we’ve provided them with here.”

There has been some criticism of the zoo’s new elephant effort. Last month, Peter Stroud, an Australian zoo consultant and Asian elephant expert who visited the zoo last fall, wrote in an opinion piece in The Washington Post that he thought the new complex was “unimaginative” and resembled a golf course.

He said that the pool looked too shallow and that the yards lacked the dirt mounds and dust wallows that elephants loved.

Zoo officials said Thursday that the facility was a work in progress. They pointed out that the elephants had begun to dig their own dust wallows. And in the mid-day heat Thursday, Kandula frolicked for several minutes in the pool.

It was only his third day out in the new yard, said keeper Tony Barthel. Shanthi has been more curious about the new area; Ambika much less so.

“They’re nervous,” he said. “They take change slowly. It makes them uncomfortable. They each take it at their own pace, like you and I. Some people adjust quickly to change. Some people are fairly slow. And we’re letting them meet it at their own terms.”