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Denver Zoo finishing world-class expansion for elephants and friends

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The two-year din of construction behind screened fences at Denver Zoo is being replaced by the pitter-patter of enormous feet — elephant, rhino and tapir.

The almost-completed $50 million Asian Tropics exhibit is the zoo’s bid for greatness.

Everything about the 10-acre exhibit — which must remain under wraps until late spring, when animal relocations, quarantines and training all will have run their courses — is meant to be a gee-whiz, eye-opening experience. And not just for the human visitors.

Zookeepers believe animal residents will be wowed. Even more than wowed, the humans here say, elephants, rhinos and others will be made safer worldwide because of the boldness of Asian Tropics.

“You’re not just building an exhibit; you’re saving elephants,” zoo vice president for planning George Pond repeated over and over to zoo staff, construction workers and anyone who looked tired during eight years of unrelenting effort.

“Asian Tropics stands alone, without peer, in terms of its complexity and size,” Pond said.

The new habitat will rock the world of the zoo’s two longtime resident Asian elephants, 52-year-old Mimi and 47-year-old Dolly, who are being slowly habituated (i.e., bribed with treats) to enter two big metal travel crates. A crane eventually will lower crates and elephants into a new life.

Newcomer Bodhi, a 7-year- old male elephant, arrived late last week from the Columbus Zoo. He is one of eight bulls the zoo intends to acquire over time. As many as 12 elephants total could live here.

Nothing else this big

No other U.S. zoo has attempted housing bull elephants on this scale, so Denver will become a key national player in elephant-breeding and conservation programs.

“Somebody had to step up and learn how to manage a significant number of male elephants. No one has done it before,” said zoo president and chief executive Craig Piper. “When I started

Land surveyor Brian Rottinghaus works on the $50 million Asian Tropics exhibit. Animals will be moving in, but the area won’t be open until late spring. (AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post)

in my zoo career 27 years ago, there were 109,000 Asian elephants in the world. There are now 35,000. We’ve lost two-thirds of the population. And this is an animal people love and revere. If we can’t save the popular animals . . . .” He doesn’t finish. 

The greater one-horned rhinoceros, also in residence here, has dwindled to fewer than 3,500 in native populations.

In Asian Tropics, elephants, rhinos and tapirs will rotate through six habitats or yards, giving them changes of scenery, 2 miles of trails to explore, mud wallows, swim channels, full-immersion pools, scratching trees, shady patches, hot tubs and even a giant bridge for aerial thrills.

Animals and zookeepers alike must learn to navigate the exhibit’s 136 gates. This won’t be a boring place to live, work or visit.

“It will take a year to get them fully acclimated,” Piper said. “There will be nervousness at first for them and us. We’ll let them tell us when they’re ready for the next thing.”

Asian Tropics also will be home to clouded leopards, fishing cats, flying foxes (and other bats), skinks, pythons, Solomon eyelash frogs, gibbons and small-clawed otters.

Mission spans world

This exhibit, said spokeswoman Tiffany Barnhart, fully manifests the zoo’s changing culture and mission — conserving species and habitats in what is left of the wild animal kingdom.

“If you love Mimi and Dolly, that’s great, but we want you to know about

Caleb Minor wires a panel on the fully articulating veterinary retaining device, which allows veterinarians to fully turn animals so they can have complete access to them. (AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post)

wild Asian elephants,” said Brad Parks, the zoo’s director of public programs. 

In each of the past two years, the zoo has spent $1 million in the field working to reduce human-animal conflicts. For example, the zoo’s success enables staff to join with villagers in Sri Lanka and Vietnam to help fence elephants out of their settlements rather than trying to fence elephants into reserves that are too small.

Field workers have helped villagers change over to new cash crops, such as chili peppers, which elephants don’t like to eat and don’t raid.

Asian Tropics features a full- scale replica of a village hut destroyed by elephants reduced to marauding for food because of human encroachment on their range.

“A zoo slogan is: ‘Securing a better world for animals through human understanding,’ ” Parks said. “The zoo realizes everybody needs to learn about animals. This exhibit will tell stories about animals, places and people. We’re saving wildlife by helping people.”

Since 1996, the zoo has participated in more than 500 proj ects in 57 countries. It’s currently working in 22 countries. While greater effort is being made by zoos to preserve wild areas and make them safer for animals, zoos’ collections still serve as an insurance policy.

“You can no longer use a single approach to conservation,” Piper said. “Zoos have a lot of experience working with small, isolated populations.”

That experience is now sadly applicable to what’s left of wild populations.

And zoos are the embassies of animal ambassadors.

“The strength of the zoo is that it touches people’s hearts,” Piper said.

Asian Tropics is the culmination of almost a decade of design and planning, but it’s really the climax of 115 years of this zoo trying to understand how to build a better Noah’s ark.

The exhibit’s six new buildings, including a new cafe and restrooms, sprawl along the zoo’s southern edge, once the range of a bison herd relocated to private lands in southeast Colorado.

Asian Tropics’ 1.1 million gallons of water in pools and channels is more than double the volume in existing water features. It uses the city’s recycled water supply and its own state- of-the-art filtration system.

With this exhibit, the Denver elephants’ outdoor habitat increases more than fivefold to 88,208 square feet. Their indoor square footage increases almost eightfold to 9,000 square feet.

The new pachyderm digs, the Clayton Freiheit Elephant House, is named for the zoo’s longtime director. Freiheit died in 2007, before ground was broken.

“He committed to this,” Parks said. “He had the courage to send us down this path.”

Boldly taking risks

A core value of this zoo is innovation, curator Dale Leeds said.

“This institution encourages me to take risks, knowing we will get it right,” Leeds said. “I feel very comfortable saying: ‘I don’t know if it will work, but I’ll try it.’ ”

For example, he’s trying out sand substrates in the animals’ stalls as well as rubberized floors, rather than concrete. They’re trying indoor pools for the rhinos.

The zoo, recognized this year by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums as the nation’s greenest, is now determined to generate its own power for Asian Tropics.

Poop won’t go to waste

For four years, Piper said, the zoo closely studied its trash stream, weighing every full trash bin, to develop a biomass- gasification system. It can reliably convert zoo waste, everything from discarded office products to elephant dung, into fuel. The process is expected to divert 90 percent of zoo waste from the landfill to generate energy meeting 15 percent to 20 percent of the zoo’s needs.

It will save the zoo an estimated $150,000 a year in waste-hauling and energy costs.

“I never thought in my zoo career I’d be pursuing patents to protect intellectual property related to sustainable power generation,” Piper said. “We think we’ll landfill zero waste by 2025.”

Culmination of 8 years

As two years of construction by 300 workers comes to an end this month or next, more than 20 people will join the 250-member zoo staff as keepers, curators, horticulturists and other experts.

The exhibit will cost an estimated $600,000 to $700,000 annually to run.

“We’ve been at this for eight years,” Pond said. “We’re doing something important for elephants, for zoos, for conservation, for Denver. So much of this has never been done before or done at this level or scale. We’re retraining the whole staff.”

Denver voters approved a 1999 bond issue that matched every private dollar raised for construction. More than 3,000 private donors have chipped in. The zoo still needs to raise $2 million to cross the finish line.

“The zoo, for all its conservation dreams, is still a business,” Piper said.

Asian Tropics can’t open soon enough for 3-year-old Camden Smerey, who personally raised $13, mostly from his grandmother, for Mimi’s and Dolly’s new home.

“It’s a huge deal for us,” said his mother, Carly Smerey.

“Camden’s been going to the zoo twice a month since he was a baby,” she said. “We’re very excited.”

Electa Draper: 303-954-1276 or

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  • comment avatar Kia November 16, 2011

    I am really excited for this exhibit. It is always a great thing when a zoo is able to go in this direction. When I was a volunteer at the L. A. Zoo a lot of work was done with how primates were cared for that were ground-breaking. I wish Denver all kinds of success with their captive breeding program and I am looking forward to seeing Bodhi in the exhibit in the spring.

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