Audubon Zoo elephants prepare to pack up their trunks

Expansion underway at Audubon Zoo

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- The weather vane at the new Betty Wisdom Elephant House at the Audubon Zoo Wednesday, June 12, 2013.
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- The weather vane at the new Betty Wisdom Elephant House at the Audubon Zoo Wednesday, June 12, 2013.

Panya and Jean have lived in the same cramped space since they each arrived here more than 30 years ago, but they’ll soon pack their trunks and move to a new, more spacious home.

The Audubon Zoo’s pair of Asian elephants will be the first inhabitants of a new state-of-the-art barn, designed to hold a total of four elephants, and will be free to roam a plot of land nearly an acre in size.

The new elephant barn and enclosure are just one part of larger changes taking place right now at the zoo.

The Asian Domain is in the midst of a redesign, with the zoo’s orangutans moving into the current 1930s-era elephant barn. In addition a “lazy river” water attraction will be added to the Cool Zoo splash park.

But to the zoo staff, the key change is the new elephant barn.

The existing barn and elephant displayed opened in the late ’30s in what was then known as the Merz Memorial Zoo.

Though it served its purpose for the last 75 years or so, it was far from adequate said Joel Hamilton, vice president and general curator.

“It’s night and day,” Hamilton said, comparing the old and new facilities. “To continue displaying them, we had to do something like this.”

The new exhibit will be about 42,370 square feet and is designed to resemble a clearing in a forest, with gentle inclines, shade trees, pools to take a dip in during the long, hot summer days, and an “enrichment tree,’’ a replica of a fallen tree trunk which will allow the elephants to forage for food, including fruit and pumpkins.

“It’ll be incredible for the animals. It will be good to see them roaming out here,” Hamilton said.

The current elephant barn is 990 square feet. The entire exhibit is about 6,100 square feet.

The new 5,600-square-foot barn, with its heated, padded floors and 24-foot ceilings, will be more comfortable not only for the pachyderms, but the people who care for them, who will get new offices. It is almost finished and Hamilton said zoo staff will soon begin moving the elephants for short intervals to get used to their new surroundings. Landscaping is just getting started on the outside space.

The entire updated exhibit will cost about $10 million, a bill that is being paid for through a mix of state capital outlay funds and private donations.

The elephants will begin a gradual transition to their new home once work wraps, and then new work will begin to transform the current barn and exhibit to the home of the zoo’s orangutan collection.

The move of the orangutans, an Asian species, is designed to group all of the Asian animals into one area.

A renovated leopard exhibit recently opened next to the current elephant exhibit, while the petting zoo will move to a new enclosure next to Monkey Hill. The new petting zoo will open later this summer.

Beyond the traditional zoo attractions, Audubon is working on a new “lazy river” attraction at its Cool Zoo splash park.

Named “Gator Run,” the attraction also will include two sand beaches and three water cannons that can spray visitors.

There will also be the opportunity for the elephants and visitors to interact, with the elephants having the ability to spray people as they swim in a 12-foot-deep pool that will be built next to the Gator Run attraction.

Construction on the new attractions began earlier this year and will continue into 2014.