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Walls go up on zoo elephants' new home

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO JONATHAN HOUSE - Elephants at the Oregon Zoo are already roaming on some of the additional space being created by the Elephant Lands project. This picture was taken at the new Encounter Yard.Construction of the new elephant habitat at the Oregon Zoo reached a milestone last week when all of the 35-foot-high exterior walls for their indoor holding area were raised into place.

The new 14,000-square-foot building, unofficially known as the Elephant Welfare Center, is the largest structure at the zoo. It replaces a much smaller holding area that was built in 1959.

But an even larger building for the elephants will soon be built next to it — Forest Hall, an 18,000-square-foot structure that will house both elephants and a new viewing area for zoo visitors. Some of its walls will be 43 feet high.

The two buildings are part of a project that will increase the space for the elephants at the zoo from a little more than one acre to 6.25 acres. Called Elephants Lands, it will include many features intended to improve the living conditions for the large mammals. The project is more than 40 percent complete.

“We’ve turned a major corner,” says zoo bond project engineer Wayne Starkey. “A lot of construction is behind the scenes, and people don’t often get to see the progress we’re making until a habitat is complete. With the walls up, you can now understand the scale of this project. This is the most ambitious stage of the most ambitious project in the zoo’s history.”

One new feature will be a huge sunken pool large enough for the elephants to completely submerge. Measuring 80 feet wide and 12 feet deep, it will hold 160,000 gallons of water that will be filtered 20 times a day. The new pool will replace a smaller one that has to be emptied and refilled every day.

When completed, Elephant Lands will occupy almost 10 percent of the zoo’s 64 acres in Portland’s West Hills. Much of it will be contoured terrain for the elephants to roam.

“We’ve learned a lot about caring for elephants since the 1950s,” says Bob Lee, the zoo’s elephant exhibit curator. “And we’re grateful for the chance to put all that knowledge into this new habitat, which is going to make the lives of all the elephants so much better.”

Among the things that have been learned is the kind of ground the elephants need to walk on. Much of the original exhibit space has concrete floors, which are easy to clean and disinfect. But such impervious surfaces can lead to serious and even fatal foot problems in elephants.

Beginning in the 1990s, the zoo began installing more elephant-friendly surfaces, retrofitting its outdoor areas with natural substrates and installing 2-inch-thick rubber flooring inside. In 1998, the zoo hosted the first professional conference on elephant foot-care practices, convening veterinarians and elephant experts from around the world.

Much of the project is adjacent to the stage and large lawn where concerts are held at the zoo. Some of the lawn has been taken over by construction barricades, but bleachers have been added to replace the lost seating.

Bond projects

The $57 million project is scheduled to open in the fall of 2015. It is the largest and most expensive of several improvements being undertaken at the zoo with proceeds from a $125 million bond measure approved by voters in 2008. Metro, the elected regional government, owns and operates the zoo.

The first major project financed by the bonds was a $9.15 million state-of-the-art Veterinary Medical Center for the zoo animals that includes such advanced features as a climate-controlled intensive care unit and separate holding facilities for different kinds of animals at the zoo with their own air systems. It replaced a much smaller and out-of-date facility.

Other bond-funded projects include a new water-filtration system for the penguins and the new $2.3 million Condors of the Columbia exhibit that opened on May 24.

Elephant Lands is not without controversy, however. Some local animal rights activists do not believe elephants can be kept in zoos humanely, regardless of how much money is spent on their surroundings. They have launched a campaign to have the zoo move Packy, it’s oldest elephant, to a sanctuary with even more room than what is currently under construction. That would be just a prelude to releasing all of the elephants into a more natural setting if the activists had their way.

Zoo officials defend their

elephant program, which includes breeding them. They say elephants in the wild, especially Asian elephants like those at the zoo, are threatened by habitat loss, conflict with humans and disease. According to zoo officials, fewer than 40,000 elephants remain in fragmented populations from India to Borneo. Through the International Elephant Foundation and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the zoo also supports a broad range of elephant conservation efforts to help wild elephants, the officials say.

The work is underway as Metro reorganizes the zoo in the wake of a series of high-profile medical incidents, including the untimely deaths of Kutai, a 20-year-old orangutan, and six tamarin monkeys. Zoo Director Kim Smith was dismissed on May 5 and temporarily replaced with Teri Dresler, Metro’s general manager of visitor venues, which oversees the zoo.

Chief veterinarian Mitch Finnegan was also dismissed that day and a search is underway for his replacement. And a team from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums is scheduled to visit the zoo this month to review the staffing levels at the medical center and make recommendations for improvements. The organization certifies such zoo-based hospitals.