The new home for Audubon Zoo’s two elephants is set to debut on Tuesday — and the place is fit for a glossy magazine spread.
Part of a broader remake of the zoo’s Asian Domain area that has been more than three years in the making, the new configuration gives Audubon’s two female pachyderms eight times the space of their old habitat.
It features a more spacious barn, a shaded educational pavilion and an “enrichment log,” which forces the animals to problem-solve and to exercise some of their 40,000 trunk muscles as they forage for food.
There are two separate pools: a 4-foot-deep splash pool at one end and a 12-foot-deep immersion pool at the other.
“It’s awesome,” said Joel Hamilton, the zoo’s general curator. “There’s a lot more things for them to do in here, and a lot of space in which they can roam around.”
The zoo’s orangutans and leopards have new homes also, but the elephant exhibit is the most dramatic part of the Asian Domain upgrade.
Made possible in part by the generosity of New York real estate developer Jeffrey Feil and the Charitable Lead Annuity Trust, the expansion will allow the zoo to acquire more of the giant animals, Hamilton said.
Right now, it’s home to Panya, 52, and Jean, 43, Asian elephants that have been star attractions at Audubon for more than 30 years.
Elephants in captivity generally live into their 60s, so the zoo staff had to start planning for what will happen when one of them dies.
“Elephants are herd animals,” Hamilton said. “Our challenge is that we’ve got older animals, and if we lose one, we’re going to have a single animal. We needed to plan.”
The reconfiguration includes an area of shaded boardwalk where staffers will stage shows and demonstrations. There are educational games and activities related to Asian culture — and eye-level views of the elephants themselves.
As Audubon Nature Institute CEO Ron Forman put it in the zoo’s formal announcement, “The unique design of this new exhibit offers spectacular vantage points to view two of the most treasured members of the Audubon Zoo family.”
Asian themes are dominant throughout the redesign, including artifacts and decorations that allude to the cultures of India, Nepal and other lands.
Tapestries hanging in the overlook area are representative of the saddle blankets worn on elephants in Indian festivals, and there are sari fabrics traditionally worn by Indian women.
The exhibit and surrounding areas also feature hanging umbrellas, known as “tedung” in Balinese dialect, which are often used for festive ceremonies and parades. Animal flags leading to the elephant fountain mimic traditional prayer flags.
Hamilton said the most important aspect of the new exhibit is the opportunity it provides to educate the public about animals in the wild and hopefully to spark interest in conservation efforts.
To that end, the zoo offers information about the organization 96 Elephants, a Wildlife Conservation Society campaign to stop the slaughter of African elephants for their ivory.
The name comes from the number of elephants killed every day for their tusks. In 2012, poachers killed 35,000 African elephants.
“We can educate people, hopefully, to do something about what’s going on in the wild. It’s our job to incite them with ideas and opportunities,” Hamilton said. “If we don’t, it’s not a good situation for many animals in the wild, particularly elephants.”