Oklahoma City elephant exhibit debuts as largest in the country

The elephant exhibit at the Oklahoma City Zoo opens March 11. It's the largest Asian elephant exhibit in the country. At $13 million, it's the largest project ever undertaken at the Oklahoma City Zoo.
BY CARRIE COPPERNOLL ccoppernoll@opubco.com Published: March 7, 2011
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photo - Construction workers put a sealant on the pedestrian walkways over the new elephant habitat at the Oklahoma City Zoo in Oklahoma City on Thursday, March. 3, 2011. Photo by John Clanton
Construction workers put a sealant on the pedestrian walkways over the new elephant habitat at the Oklahoma City Zoo in Oklahoma City on Thursday, March. 3, 2011. Photo by John Clanton

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.

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