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Denver Zoo to build $50 million exhibit for elephants

Julie Hutchinson,
Special to the Rocky Mountain News
Vail, CO Colorado
Chris Schneider/Rocky Mountain NewsMimi, an Asian elephant, drinks at the Denver Zoo. The age, small size and outdated design of Mimi's current home are motivating factors behind the zoo's decision to build an Asian Tropics exhibit that will house eight to 12 pachyderms.
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DENVER, Colorado – The Denver Zoo will start building a $50 million exhibit for its elephants next year at a time when five major U.S. zoos are closing their pachyderm houses.

Since 2004, zoos in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, New York and San Francisco have decided to eliminate their elephant exhibits, mainly out of concern for the animals’ well being, but also for financial reasons.

Denver Zoo officials say their planned Asian Tropics exhibit “which could house up to 12 elephants ” will greatly improve the herd’s living conditions and help ensure the species’ long-term survival.

But animal-rights activists and others say keeping elephants in captivity is barbaric.

“Zoos just can’t meet the needs of these animals,” said Marc Bekoff, author, researcher and former University of Colorado biology professor.

“Their social relationships are enduring, and they’re complex,” Bekoff said.

“They’re big, emotional, smart animals with phenomenal memories. You just can’t plop an animal here and there and form a group.

“I hate to say it, but the Denver Zoo doing what major zoos have decided not to do makes absolutely no sense at all,” said Bekoff.

Denver Zoo President and CEO Craig Piper responds that elephants in the wild are dying out”due to poaching and habitat destruction”and that zoos may be the species’ last, best hope.

“When people see elephants up close, they say ‘Look at those beautiful eyelashes.’ It hits them in their hearts,” said Piper.

“If we can hit them in their hearts, their heads follow. This is a launching pad for a lot of our conservation programs.”

Asian Tropics ” funded in part by a bond issue passed by Denver voters in 1999″will be state of the art, Piper said.

“We said if you build it, it has to be the best. It’s an insurance policy,” Piper said. “We’re going to invest in both field conservation and creating a stable population in the zoo community.”

An evolving science

Denver Zoo officials say their decision to invest $50 million in the elephant exhibit mirrors a national trend to improve living conditions in zoos.

Steve Feldman, senior vice president of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the accrediting agency for the zoo industry, agrees.

A recent survey of the AZA’s 210 member organizations indicated that 22 have upgraded their elephant habitats since 2003 and another 39 are in the process, Feldman said.

“These are major projects,” Feldman said.

“So the trend is an accelerated commitment to elephant care and conservation.”

Critics charge that the projects are simply a response to the AZA’s 2006 upgrading of standards for elephant care, which includes more space and upgraded handler training, diet, physical activity and enrichment programs designed to help zoo elephants stay stimulated intellectually.

Such care is “incredibly expensive,” and the decision of some of the country’s major zoos to get out of the elephant business is financial, he said.

“Some institutions have chosen to invest their resources elsewhere,” Feldman said. The care of captive elephants is an evolving science that has improved dramatically in recent years and will continue to improve, he said.

No place better represents the evolution than the Denver Zoo.

In 1950, Cookie the elephant arrived at the Denver Zoo and lived alone for nine years in a small, red-brick building with a tiny outside yard.

Her first roommate, Candy, moved to the Denver Zoo in 1959 from The Bronx Zoo. The Denver Zoo opened its Pachyderm House that year.

Today, that facility is home to the zoo’s two resident elephants, Dolly and Mimi. Its age, small size and outdated design are a motivating factor behind the decision to build Asian Tropics.

The Denver Zoo’s elephants will share Asian Tropics with other endangered

Asian species, including tapirs and rhinos, rotating daily among five outdoor habitats. Plans call for an elephant skywalk that will allow visitors beneath to watch the animals as they move through the exhibit.

At the same time the Denver Zoo will continue to fund and participate in elephant conservation projects in countries where elephants live in the wild, including Sumatra, Sri Lanka and Myanmar.

“We’re studying these animals, doing cooperative breeding and educating the public to make sure they know what needs to be done to save these animals,” said zoo spokeswoman Tiffany Barnhart.

Ongoing debate

While elephants and zoos stand alongside apple pie as emblematic of all that is good about America, an ongoing debate about whether any zoo can provide a proper home for the endangered elephants continues.

The issue has become so polarizing that city governments in San Francisco and Chicago have been asked to approve measures regulating the size of elephant enclosures.

The unexpected death June 9 at the Philadelphia Zoo of the oldest African elephant in captivity in the United States, 52-year-old Petal, is intensifying the focus of animal-rights groups that say all elephants kept in zoos should be released to sanctuaries.

The investigation into Petal’s death is continuing; no cause has been determined. Critics charged that Petal’s death was premature and a result of health problems associated with living in confinement.

Philadelphia zoo officials were planning to send Petal and two other elephants to a sanctuary in central Pennsylvania later this year.

Zoos that are closing their exhibits are shipping the animals to so-called elephant sanctuaries, where the animals are allowed to roam on vast acreages that urban zoos can’t provide. Critics of the sanctuaries, including the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, counter that the refuges are simply large, unaccredited zoos.

At the same time, high-profile animal-rights groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have embraced the notion that all elephants should be released from zoos. Piper said such views are “extreme.”

“We’ve never had anyone say we should not have Mimi and Dolly here with us,” Piper said.

The 42 members of the zoo’s board of directors, which includes a who’s who of Denver’s business and civic leaders, have been “extremely supportive” of Asian Tropics, Piper said.

But Bekoff, the former CU professor and frequent collaborator with Jane Goodall, the British anthropologist and chimpanzee researcher, is unmoved.

In his numerous books about ethical treatment of animals, including The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy ” and Why They Matter, Bekoff argues there is no justification for confining elephants.

The Detroit Zoo came to the same conclusion in 2005, when it shipped its aging, arthritic elephants, Winky and Wanda, to a sanctuary in California and closed its exhibit.

“We used to believe that preventive foot care and enriching the relatively small amount of space the elephants have with objects and ‘toys’ might be enough,” Detroit Zoo officials said in a news release at the time.

“Now we understand how much more is needed to be able to adequately meet the physical and psychological needs of elephants in captivity, especially in a cold climate. We no longer think that we can provide the necessary social and physical environment for elephants.”

Arguments for keeping elephants in zoos

* Zoos have evolved from entertainment venues to conservation centers.

* Maintaining a healthy population of elephants in zoos helps keep elephants alive in the wild by increasing scientific knowledge and by educating generations of people who develop empathy for the animals.

* Asian Tropics will provide a state-of-the-art facility for housing and breeding endangered Asian elephants.

* Elephant exhibits in approximately 38 accredited U.S. zoos are being updated.

* Elephants that are well cared for in zoos do not need the equivalent amount of range used by elephants in the wild.

* Life expectancy for elephants in captivity is about the same as it is for elephants in the wild that have been studied.

Arguments against keeping elephants in zoos

* In nature, elephants are highly intelligent animals that live in strong, matriarchal societies of up to 30 animals. Their complex social needs cannot be met in zoos.

* Zoos use captive animals to draw paying visitors.

* Captive breeding programs are failures.

* Extinction is preferable to life as a captive.

* When Philadelphia and The Bronx Zoo closed their elephant exhibits, zoo officials stated the decisions were made out of concern for the animals’ well being.

* Elephants in zoos develop foot and joint problems because of the lack of adequate range.

* A 2002 study showed elephants in European zoos weighed up to 50 percent more than their wild counterparts.

* A 2002 study showed African elephants in European zoos on average lived only half as long as those in the wild.

Asian Tropics at a glance

* Cost: $50 million, funded by a bond issue passed by Denver voters in 1999 and another $25 million in private donations.

* Area: 10 acres on the zoo’s southern edge just east of Duck Lake. Elephants will share the space with rhinos and tapirs.

* Range: Five areas for the animals to exercise their minds and bodies.

* Barn: 18,000-square-foot barn for eight to 12 elephants

* Breeding: The zoo plans to become a national leader in the breeding of Asian elephants by housing “a significant group of bull elephants,” according to the zoo’s Web site.

By the numbers

284 The number of African and Asian elephants living in 79 U.S. zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

6 tons. Weight of an adult male Asian elephant.

65 years. Average life span of an Asian elephant.

10,800 pounds. Weight of Denver Zoo’s senior elephant, Mimi, as of June 16. The Denver Zoo’s two elephants, Mimi and Dolly, are Asian elephants.

Zoos expanding elephant exhibits

* Oklahoma City Zoo: New Asia exhibit, $23 million

* Raleigh, N.C.: $8.5 million elephant exhibit opened April 2008 that can house seven animals

* Los Angeles: $40 million expansion to 3.7 acres or up to 10 animals

* National Zoo, Washington D.C. $30 million Asia Trails exhibit under construction

Zoos closing elephant exhibits

* Bronx Zoo: Officials announced in 2006 they would not replace the three elephants.

* Philadelphia Zoo: called off a $22 million project for its elephants in 2006.

* Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago: Following the deaths of three elephants in 2004 and 2005, zoo officials said the elephants would not be replaced.

* San Francisco Zoo: closed its elephant exhibit in 2004 and sent its two elephants to a sanctuary.


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