While a number of zoos across the country are closing their elephant exhibits by 2016, according to a Wall Street Journal report, Portland’s Oregon Zoo is building a replacement four times larger than the existing 1959 pachyderm barn. This ambitious project sets new standards in elephant care and is designed to be one of the most natural, moving and spectacular zoo exhibits in the world.
The new exhibit, called Elephant Lands, will include both interior and exterior areas. The interior holding area’s solid 35-foot-tall walls have already been erected, surpassing the height of any other building in the Oregon Zoo’s 125-year history. The Forest Hall, another indoor portion of the exhibit, will be even taller at 43 feet, and will feature an elephant viewing area and information on the 5,000-year-old history of the relationship between humans and elephants. Together, the holding area and Forest Hall rest on 32,000 square feet, and will be filled with at least four feet of sand to cushion and protect the health of the pachyderms’ feet.
The exterior portion of the exhibit will take up the remaining 6.25 acre spread that has been dedicated to the elephant exhibit. It will contain feeding stations, mud wallows and water features, including a 130,000-gallon pool. The goal is for elephants to be active 14-16 hours a day, as they would be in their natural habitat. Elephants will be able to choose whether they want to be inside or outside at any given time, moving freely between the two options through an elephant-sized “air cushion,” part of the technologically advanced heating and ventilation system that will maintain a consistent, comfortable indoor temperature.
While the Oregon Zoo is expanding its elephant exhibit into an exciting, new habitat based on more than 50 years of scientific research on pachyderm care, other zoos across the U.S. are closing their own standard elephant exhibits. The Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), a non-profit organization that accredits zoos, recently published new requirements for elephant exhibits, based on scientific research showing that elephants, as emotional, intelligent and highly social animals, belong in a pack. The new guidelines mandate that facilities with only one or two elephants must either acquire additional elephants or get rid of them altogether by September 2016. When the elephants are shipped to their new homes, tears will be shed, both human and elephantine.
According to the AZA, rigorous standards for elephant care, management and conservation must be met or exceeded for zoos to keep their accreditations. These standards specify proper care and maintenance to ensure that the social, behavioral, psychological, and physical needs of elephants are met. Elephant exhibits are also expected to educate the public about the issues that are threatening elephant survival, and how to protect them. Finally, AZA-accredited zoos must have extensively researched and planned elephant breeding programs that support a variety of international conservation and research programs that help elephants in Africa and Asia.
As an AZA-accredited facility, the Oregon Zoo, with the upcoming elephant exhibit planned to be in place by Autumn of 2015, will meet or exceed the new accreditation requirements and standards for pachyderm care almost a year before they go into effect. The Oregon Zoo is currently accepting donations for their $3 million “Campaign for Elephants.”
By Sarah Hutchins