A few of the biggest local celebrities are getting a new home as the Oregon Zoo elephant enclosure is set for expansion.
The zoo is in the midst of its most significant construction project since it opened at its current location in 1959. Projects scheduled over the coming years aim to upgrade outdated facilities and improve the zoo experience for visitors.
One project at the heart of the construction effort is the 6.25-acre Elephant Lands. Construction on the $53 million project started in early June and is scheduled to be completed by 2015.
“It was state of the art at the time, but we’ve learned so much since then,” said Hova Najarian, media and public relations officer.
While the Elephant Lands project is one of the largest changes in store, a series of additional improvements, using sustainable practices, are scheduled in the coming years. The projects are paid for by a $125 million bond measure passed by Portland Metro-area voters in 2008.
With an area more than four times the size of the current facility, Elephant Lands is expected to provide the lively animals with more choice and freedom to stay active and socialize. The current Lilah Callen Holden Elephant Museum will also be torn down and replaced with Forest Hall, the indoor exhibition portion of Elephant Lands.
Elephant curator Bob Lee said the new addition will address the needs of the zoo’s eight Asian elephants: Packy, Samudra, Rama, Tusko, Rose-Tu, Chendra, Sung-Surin and Lily.
Aside from being a crowd pleaser at the Oregon Zoo, 51-year-old Packy was the first elephant to be born in the Western Hemisphere in 44 years.
One of the largest recorded male Asian elephants weighing in at about 12,500 pounds, Packy will get to experience the new state-of-the art enclosure designed by elephant curation staff, a core group of veterinarians, architectural designers and Mike Keele, former deputy zoo director, who recently retired from his position.
“I think the inspiration for everyone was what would benefit the elephants the most,” Lee said.
Lee has worked with the zoo since 1999 and spends just about as much time with the elephants as he does his kids, he joked.
“It’s just like being here with your family,” he said.
When asked what is his favorite part of working with the elephants each day, Lee quickly answered: “The personal relationships.” When he first met Rose-Tu, he could see just over her back, he said. Not anymore, he laughed.
The enclosure will largely expand the area for the elephants to roam and stay active, he said. Elephant Lands will feature more than 20 automatic feeding stations, elephant-controlled showers, mud wallows and additional water features.
The elephants need exercise and the ability to make their own decisions, he said. It is important for them to develop their minds and social structures. In the wild, he said, the elephants are constantly challenged 24 hours a day.
Staff workers always are looking to provide the animals with more choices, he said.
“The greatest thing for me is to watch these guys have self-determination over their day,” Lee said. “To see that blown up on a massive scale is most rewarding.”