The Oklahoma City Zoo will open its new elephant habitat Friday, just weeks before the expected delivery of the zoo's first baby elephant.
Asian elephants Asha and Chandra have been out of the public eye since they returned in October from a breeding trip to the Tulsa Zoo.
They adjusted well to their new home in Oklahoma City and probably will be unfazed by the thousands of people who are expected to crowd the boardwalks through their home this week, Oklahoma City Zoo mammal curator Laura Bottaro said.
It's the visitors who might have a tougher time adjusting, Bottaro said.
“I can't wait to see the reaction,” she said.
“I think it's going to be jaw-dropping.”
The elephant habitat is the largest Asian elephant zoo exhibit in the country. At 9½ acres, it's nearly twice as big as the next largest exhibit.
The $13 million project is funded by Oklahoma City sales taxes, except for about $665,000 in private donations.
Exhibit opens after three-year trek
Asha and Chandra went to the Tulsa Zoo in June 2008. Both were bred with bull elephant Sneezy.
Asha became pregnant, and Oklahoma City Zoo officials predict she will give birth May 1, though it could be as early as March 15.
Tests have confirmed that her sister, Chandra, is not pregnant, zoo spokeswoman Tara Henson said.
The elephant area is the largest exhibit ever built at the Oklahoma City Zoo, Executive Director Dwight Scott said. The project is on time and on budget, he said.
The 9½-acre exhibit includes three elephant yards, a demonstration pavilion and a barn so big that some staff members call it the parking garage. The barn has eight stalls, including a common area with a sand floor.
“This is an exciting time for the zoo as we reintroduce the elephants to our guests and share this state-of-the-art new habitat with them,” Scott said.
The exhibit incorporates features that give visitors an up-close look at the elephants' lives, Bottarosaid. For example, several specialized walls allow keepers to examine the elephants' feet and ears within view of visitors. The new Thai demonstration pavilion will seat up to 400 for daily training shows at 1:30 p.m.
Size of the exhibit aside, the goal is to provide a healthy, stimulating environment, Bottaro said.
The elephants can find shade under towering pavilions, where zookeepers can dangle games or food to encourage natural foraging. The sisters can toss old tree trunks or climb into a pool six times larger than the one in their old habitat. They can wander and explore new areas.
“It really isn't always about the space,” she said. “It's about what you do with the space and what the animals have to do in that space.”
Calf is expected soon
Even though Asha is so close to delivery, don't expect to see a bulging baby bump.
“The baby is so low in the abdomen, we can't even see it on an ultrasound,” Bottaro said.
The easiest way to tell the difference is that Asha is bigger than her sister.
Asha has been eating normally and cooperating with trainers, said Jennifer D'Agostino, director of veterinarian services at the Oklahoma City Zoo. Asha is weighed daily, and her blood is drawn frequently to track hormone levels.
“She seems her normal, everyday self,” D'Agostino said.
Zookeepers throughout the country pass around what officials call a baby book. It's an information kit full of resources, videos, studies and statistics about elephant births.
Using that as a guide, Oklahoma City Zoo officials have predicted Asha's due date as May 1.
Every Thursday, zoo staff members practice the delivery drill.
Volunteers and staff have begun watching her 24 hours a day, D'Agostino said.
“There's quite a range with elephant gestation,” D'Agostino said. “Asha's never had a baby before, so we want to make sure we don't miss it.”
But Asha's calf won't be the final addition to the elephant herd, said Scott, the zoo director. The habitat has plenty of room for additions.
Which elephants to move to Oklahoma City will be at the discretion of the Asian Elephant Species Survival Plan. The plan is a nationwide breeding strategy designed to keep the elephant population healthy and genetically diverse. A committee of experts decides which animals breed and when and where.
Asha's birth is exciting, said Martha Fischer, coordinator of the Asian Elephant Species Survival Plan and mammal curator for the St. Louis Zoo. The Oklahoma City Zoo's long-term plan to grow its elephant herd is exciting, too.
“They've made a strong commitment to breeding,” she said. “Genetically, this will be a very important birth.”