Saturday, March 06, 2010

....New elephants coming two by two to Dallas Zoo....

March 6th, 2010

By DAVID FLICK / The Dallas Morning News

Like birds in spring, elephants have been flocking to the Dallas Zoo over the past few weeks.

Two female African elephants – Kamba, 30 years old and weighing 4,700 pounds, and Congo, 32, weighing 5,400 pounds – have joined the zoo’s two existing pachyderms, Gypsy and Jenny.

Two more African females, 41-year-old Stumpy, weighing 10,500 pounds, and Mama, 37, who weighs an even 4 tons, will arrive by the end of the month.

After leaving a specially built quarantine facility, the new elephants will be slowly introduced to each other over the coming months. They will be presented to the public on Memorial Day weekend, when the zoo’s $40 million Giants of the Savanna habitat opens.

The acquisition of four new elephants represents a remarkable turnaround for the Oak Cliff facility. Less than two years ago, officials announced that they were shipping Jenny, who was then the Dallas Zoo’s sole elephant, to a facility in Mexico, a decision that triggered protests from animal rights activists.

Even at the time of the Jenny announcement, officials say they already had decided on a long-range plan to return elephants to the Dallas Zoo. But that decision was made only after months of serious discussions about whether they wanted to continue to keep any elephants at all.

The many arguments against keeping elephants, according to zoo director Gregg Hudson, were outweighed by one in favor.


“More than any other animal, elephants are associated with zoos,” Hudson said. “They are the iconic animal, and when people bring their kids to the zoo, the kids want to see an elephant.”

According to guidelines by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, though, the kids have to see more than just one.

The standards, which the accreditation association made mandatory in 2001, require that elephants, which are social animals, have at least one companion. It also urged zoos to develop regimens to keep the animals active and engaged.

Implementation of the standards has forced some zoo officials across the country to either dramatically expand their elephant exhibits or get out of the elephant business entirely.

Zoos in Detroit and Madison, Wis., and the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago have decided to channel their resources elsewhere. But zoos in Cleveland, Indianapolis and Knoxville, Tenn., are, like Dallas, assembling herds.

The result has been a renaissance in elephant exhibits, according to Mike Keele, deputy director of the Oregon Zoo and chairman of the AZA’s elephant survival group.

“There’s been a lot of new construction of state-of-the-art habitats,” he said. “It’s really raised the bar for keeping elephants.”


But getting to this point has been particularly rocky in Dallas.

Hudson said that soon after he arrived as the zoo’s new director in 2006, there were discussions on whether Dallas should continue to keep elephants. The animals are expensive to maintain and require highly trained employees to attend to them.

The Dallas Zoo’s small and aging elephant house had been the subject of criticism for years. After the death of Keke in May 2008, officials were left with Jenny as the zoo’s sole elephant.

Hudson said zoo officials decided that with existing land and with funds available from a city bond issue that they would eventually build a new elephant facility.

In the meantime, they decided, they would send Jenny to the wildlife park in Mexico. The decision made international news. Animal rights activists insisted in a series of high-profile protests that the facilities in Dallas and Mexico were inhumane.

The controversy forced zoo officials to alter their plans. In a surprise announcement in August 2008, officials said they would keep Jenny in Dallas and move up completion of the elephant habitat. The zoo acquired Gypsy last July as a companion for Jenny.

The Savanna habitat includes a 10,000-square-foot elephant house that includes padded, heated floors and a community room with a 7-foot-deep sand base. The house opens up to a 6-acre grassland, which includes features designed to keep the animal occupied.

The elephants will be encouraged to rub up against a man-made “wobble tree” designed to drop down food. The elephant will also have two cords to pull – one to give them a shower, and one to douse children just outside the enclosure.

Margaret Morin, the Dallas-area nurse who headed Concerned Citizens for Jenny in 2008, is skeptical.

“None of this makes any sense,” she said of the plans. “They treat elephants as commodities. They’re not commodities. They’re sentient beings.

“It’s morally corrupt and morally wrong.”

But City Council member Angela Hunt, who in 2008 had opposed zoo officials’ plans for Jenny, said she was pleased with the new facility.

“It seems to me this will provide a good life for the elephants. It seems to be a place they can be happy in,” she said.

Jenny seems to know

For now, Kamba and Congo are midway through the quarantine process, designed to acclimate them physically and psychologically to their new home.

Already, keeper Karen Gibson said she recognizes their personalities. Congo is the dominant one and more leery of her surroundings. Kamba seems more at ease and is easier to work with.

Jenny has yet to meet her two new companions. But so keen are elephants’ sense of hearing and smell that employees said she has exhibited signs that she knows there are other elephants on the premises.

She is housed a half a mile away.


Lynn said...

Karen Gibson is one of the finest elephant caretakers around. Her dedication and knowledge are remarkable. These elephants are fortunate to be in her care.