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Elephant Walk: Memorable New Zoo exhibit stuns and impresses a new generation in Oklahoma City

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Senior Editor


Oklahomans who have not yet visited the new elephant habitat at the City Zoo probably will not fully comprehend the exhibit until they visit for themselves – as thousands did last week before formal opening on Saturday, March 11. Whether or not the old adage, “an elephant never forgets” is literally true, few human visitors will ever forget the up-close-and-personal ambiance of this elephant walk.

Elevated walkways at the facility allow patrons and visitors to peer down on the pair of popular elephants who reside there after being away from the zoo for a couple of years.

Fair or not, her “great with child” status could make Asha the more popular of the two. She is expected to give birth in May of this year, an event likely to trigger another tidal wave of visitors like those who flocked to the facility in northeast Oklahoma City the past 10 days.

Observers say, however, that 16-year-old Asha is quite dependent on her sister Chandra, seeking her out immediately when presented with anything new or unexpected – and there was a lot of that in the past few days. Some reflected glory may go to the little gal, who will turn 15 this July.

From just 40 or 50 feet away, a little boy watched the elephants on a windy day last week. A surging waterfall fed the stream into which they waded occasionally while munching on bamboo and other goodies. A breeze gusted from the west, and tiny bits of water went onto the lad’s face as he stared intently at the moment one of the creatures drew water into a feminine trunk, raising it up and pouring liquid into her mouth.

In the three-year-old boy’s mind, it was all clear. Smiling, he said, “Grandpa, he just sprayed water on me.” The older fellow explained the elephant is a lady. The young guy didn’t miss a beat: “Yes, she did.”

The impressive (and safe) nearness to the magnificent elephants is what will make a visit to the zoo unforgettable, rivaling the experience at any major zoo in the world.

Another grandfather in the herd of visitors told The City Sentinel, “The special viewing area is nice. The stadium seating will be great for watching the elephants in that part of the exhibit.” That elephant pavilion will seat 400 or more. Zoo officials say that daily behavioral presentations will include time for the elephant baths, care and training sessions. Visitors will be able to watch the creatures interact with keepers.

Costing an estimated $13 million, the area was constructed with revenues from a 1/8th cent zoo tax in effect since 1990. A $250,000 grant from the Inasmuch Foundation helped, along with a $100,000-plus in-kind gift of piping from Devon Energy Corporation, and more than a quarter-million dollars from Zoo Friends, the voluntary group that provides supplementary support to operations, and finances many special programs.

According to a summary of the massive exhibit provided to The City Sentinel, “The new elephant habitat covers more than 9.5 acres of Zoo real estate.” In the southeast corner of the grounds near the Great EscApe, it “includes three spacious outdoor yards, pools, a waterfall, shade structures and barn with amenities including views … from a raised boardwalk.”

In all, the massive barn (as big as a downtown parking garage) has 15,600 square feet, eight separate stalls with “configuration opportunities plus a large community stall with sand surface.” That area will allow the pachyderms to cavort even when weather conditions turn wintry or unpleasant, zoo officials told The City Sentinel.

A half acre “bull yard” includes an 8-foot deep, 30,000 gallon pool. A center yard of another half acre can open into the pull yard and includes a second 4,500 gallon, two-foot deep pool. A herd yard is particularly spacious, at 2.6 acres, including a 12-foot deep, 214,000 gallon pool. A waterfall flowing from the barn itself feeds into the latter pool.

The sprawling habit can eventually house up to two bulls, four cows and possible offspring.

Architects were Torre Design Consortium of New Orleans, while Oklahoma City’s own Lippert Brothers were the building contractors.

The new habitat came, in the words of a recent statement by zoo officials from a “dedication to the conservation and preservation of elephants in the wild and in zoo environments, and the need to raise awareness of these magnificent animals and the challenges they face for their survival.” There’s nothing new in all of that, however.

The local love affair between people and pachyderms dates to 1949, when Judy the elephant first showed up. She came here to live thanks to pennies collected by local children who wanted to see a real elephant like the ones in stories and the Tarzan movies.

Judy lived until about 14 years ago, drawing generations of city youth to the Zoo. Her life here increased understanding of nature and those other species with whom we share the planet.

One who came to see Judy from time to time was a lad, born in the 1950s, who came here when he was three.

Those feelings cam rushing back last week to that young man, now partr of a loving, grandma and grandpa team who have the opportunity to share many fulfilling oments with their tree-year-old grandson..

The trio visited the zoo together, their hearts warmed by the immediate bloom of love and wonder that shone in the toddler’s eyes.

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