–  Fruits of 2008 bond measure seen in new habitat, better animal care, more at Oregon Zoo

Throughout our three decades in Oregon, our family has gone on hundreds of learning safaris to the Oregon Zoo. We are constantly amazed and enthralled by the majesty, intelligence and close family dynamics of the herd of Asian elephants. Observing the herd’s family change through the years, as our own family has changed, has been a joy.

We started by watching Shine and Rose-Tu as tots (Rose-Tu was particularly mischievous), and now watch them as they have become the matriarchs that dearly love and raise Sammy and Lily. Sammy, the big brother, will head over to the sand pile and playfully lie down so that Lily can climb all over him, flap his ears and more. Lily follows Sammy to a mud hole, where both wriggle happily, much as they would do in the wild.

We’ve also keenly watched as a juvenile pygmy elephant, half-blind and orphaned by human-animal conflict in Borneo, has come to find a real home here as the rest of the herd gradually adopted her as one of their own. And we watch the grown males wander in and out of the herd, as they also would do in the wild, serving as a role model for young Sammy.

These observations have inspired us to care about the plight of their endangered cousins in the wild, and to realize that their long-term survival depends on actions that we, as humans, take (for example, support of the Bornean Elephant Project by the Oregon Zoo Foundation working together with the zoo).

I have learned so much about the Oregon Zoo’s role in protecting these magnificent animals. The elephant family here is a vital part of the Elephant Species Survival Plan across North America, dedicated to providing genetic diversity and preserving the DNA of these magnificent animals.

Long-term scientific observations about the Oregon Zoo’s elephant family have led to establishment of national elephant care standards, discoveries about the reproductive hormone cycles of males and females, and the realization that elephants communicate infrasonically (at frequencies below human hearing). This infrasonic knowledge is now being used in the elephants’ native habitat to proactively manage encounters between humans and elephants.

We are overjoyed that a beautiful state-of-the-art elephant habitat is set to open at the zoo later this year, thanks to voters, who approved the zoo bond measure, and Oregon Zoo Foundation donors, who stepped up to provide an additional $3 million to make this home truly exceptional.

Just last month, I had the opportunity to explore the soon-to-be opened North Habitat. I climbed the hills, walked in the sand (which was greatly researched to ensure healthy elephant feet), stood like a tiny ant under the huge open-air shelter and played with the massive “toys” designed to provide enrichment. I learned about the timed feeders that will keep the elephants continuously exploring to locate their food, just as they would in the wild.

This habitat is clearly designed to let the elephants choose their own activities and to roam for the majority of the day. If you haven’t seen the zoo in a few years, you would not recognize how incredibly transformed it is. Our family is very excited to see Lily and the rest of her family move into this tremendous new home. The vision in the bond measure from 2008 is coming to life in front of our eyes, thanks to you!

Kim Overhage is a retired manager from the high-tech industry. She serves as chair of the Oregon Zoo Foundation Board of Trustees and has been a proud member of the zoo since 1985.