Asian elephants Asha and Chandra will return to their home at Oklahoma City Zoo in the coming weeks, and they'll find a homestead that's very different from their old stomping grounds.
They'll have 3½ acres of land instead of fourth of an acre. Theyir barn will be 10 times bigger.
And eventually, they'll have roommates.
"When Asha and Chandra get back, it will be like a palace to them,” Oklahoma City Zoo Executive Director Dwight Scott said inside the new elephant barn Thursday morning. "But as the years pass, you'll see these stalls fill up.”
The elephant sisters have spent the past 2
years in Tulsa to breed with Sneezy, the male elephant there. Asha is pregnant; Chandra is not yet. Asha will deliver her calf in May, so the pair must return before she gets too far along in her pregnancy.
Construction workers and zoo officials are working hard to make sure the project stays on time, Scott said.
"We certainly have a strong motivation to get this done right,” he said.
The elephants will return this fall, but they'll be out of the public eye. Construction will continue around them until the exhibit opens this spring.
Most of the site is done, but construction sounds are continuous: buzzing saws, clanging hammers, rumbling forklifts. The wide swath of land is filled with pickups, roofing material and portable toilets.
The habitat will be one of the five largest elephant exhibits in the country, zoo officials said. The price tag: $13 million.
"It is by far the largest exhibit we've ever undertaken,” Scott said.
Grand scale design
The boardwalk winding through the exhibit is at least a quarter of a mile long, mammal curator Laura Bottaro said. Visitors will have bird's-eye views of the yards, pools and barn.
Elephants can be rotated among three yards, two of which are connected by a gate.
"We have a lot of flexibility,” Bottaro said.
The elephant barn is massive compared to their old home. It's 15,600 square feet inside and 24 feet from floor to ceiling. Staff members have called it the parking garage or a Walmart, Scott said. The barn has eight stalls, including a common area with a sand floor.
The elephant keepers' office is nested above all the stalls in the center of the barn, giving them a 360-degree view of what's happening. In the old building, keepers worked in a closed-off room down the hall.
The yards are dotted with interactive features, like ponds, old trees and looming towers. The giant shade structures are all nearly 30 feet tall. Keepers plan to hang games and treats from the wooden ceilings.