Zoo plans to expand its elephant exhibit
DENVER – While other zoos have gotten rid of costly elephant exhibits in the face of new regulations, the Denver Zoo is planning to build a $52 million park with lots of room for its pachyderms to roam and soak.”We want to do much more,” Denver Zoo vice president Craig Piper said. “Elephants are not doing well. … We want to help develop self-sustaining populations in zoos as an insurance policy for the wild.”Using private donations, the zoo plans to build a 10-acre “Asian Tropic” exhibit, which will include five habitat areas and contain a hot tub, running rivers and scratching trees and room for six to eight adult elephants at a time. Elephants, rhinos and tapirs will be rotated in and out throughout the day.
For several years, animal experts have debated how to best care for the intelligent animals, who have bred poorly in captivity in North America. Last year, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums issued mandatory care standards for elephants covering medical care, space, exercise and ways to keep challenging elephants with new objects, scents and foods.At least five zoos, including the nation’s oldest, in Philadelphia, have closed their elephant exhibits because of the new regulations, the cost of caring for the animals and because it’s so hard to keep them happy. The elephants have been sent to sanctuaries or other zoos.”There’s soul-searching going on,” said Larry Killmar, collections director at the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, Fla. “I’m sure the animal-rights community would love to take credit for this, but I need to give credit to my colleagues for asking, constantly, ‘Is there a better way of doing this?”‘Denver’s two elephants, Mimi and Dolly, currently spend their days in a 16,000-square foot outdoor space which more than meets the new regulations, Piper said. Zookeepers have daily contact with them, checking their foot pads, drawing blood and administering medicines.But the new park would allow zookeepers to use the “protected contact” approach, in which they only interact with elephants through bars. If an animal isn’t interested, the keeper will leave it alone for the day.Killmar said about half the zoos with elephants now use the technique.Animal activist Catherine Doyle said the changes aren’t enough.”To really do what’s best for Mimi and Dolly would be for them to live in a sanctuary with space, fresh vegetation, access to other elephants where they can choose their companions,” said Doyle, elephant campaign director for the group In Defense of Animals.