On Saturday, the zoo will open its new "Elephant Trails" area to the public, following a $56 million overhaul completed over the last seven years. It's a major expansion, more than tripling the living and socializing space for the zoo's three endangered Asian elephants: 65-year-old Ambika, 38-year-old Shanthi and the 11-year-old male, Kandula.
The renovation is among the largest overhauls of an exhibit in the zoo's history and comes as zoos nationwide are reevaluating their elephant exhibits.
Now elephants can roam in and out of two buildings with the addition of a new elephant barn. Concrete floors have been replaced with mostly sand and rubber to provide a more natural habitat and help ease the strain on the massive animals' joints and feet.
A larger outdoor space includes a walking trail for exercise stretching a third of a mile uphill through the zoo where visitors can see the elephants outside. The young male Kandula now waits at the trail gate, roaring impatiently when he's ready for a stroll.
The community center includes showers the elephants can activate with a foot pedal to have water rain down from above, geothermal heat in the floors to help replicate their native, tropical climate and skylights
In the 1950s and 1960s and even in the past decade, the elephant house was crowded with other animals, too, including hippos, rhinos, giraffes and others. By 2006, the animal rights group In Defense of Animals said Washington's zoo and five others needed major changes in their elephant care, citing evidence of chronic foot and joint problems. The Los Angeles Zoo has since built a $42 million new elephant exhibit but has still drawn criticism.
Marie Galloway, the elephant manager who has worked at the National Zoo for 26 years, said she thought the new facility would never happen.
"When I look back at the pictures of what it used to look like, it's just such a tremendous difference," she said. "We wasted a lot of time trying to convince people we cared. Now we don't have to do that. We can spend our time teaching them about elephants and natural history and conservation."
Asian elephants are critically endangered. There are fewer than 40,000 in the wild, and their habitat is shrinking. New exhibits feature elephant facts about conservation, their digestive systems and how they communicate.
"The threats that the elephants face are so huge that it's easy to get discouraged, but with this species, we can't get distracted," zoo Director Dennis Kelly said.
The National Zoo has been planning for more than a decade to create a new facility and triple the size of its herd. It will likely need to acquire a new female to produce more babies. Such animals are hard to come by. But Galloway said zoos need to consolidate elephants in facilities where they can live in herds, where there's a commitment to long-term conservation.
The zoo houses the National Elephant Herpes Laboratory with Johns Hopkins University after discovering the deadly virus at the zoo in a baby elephant that died. The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va., works with dozens of zoos as the only U.S. facility to monitor and track the reproductive health of zoo elephants.
"What we learn about elephants here helps us to take care of the elephants in the wild," Galloway said. "We need to learn more about them so we can better protect them there."
The new elephant habitat is large enough to accommodate up to three separate groups of elephants, including a matriarchal herd and individual males that often spend time alone.
It includes activities for the curious creatures, including sand piles, scratch trees and tractor tires.
Shanthi, who became a mother in 2001, carries a small tire almost everywhere she goes and has a fascination with making sound. She has even taken to playing the harmonica. Zoo keepers attach a harmonica to her stall in the elephant barn to let her play when she chooses.
Don Moore, the zoo's associate director for animal care, said the new facility is a huge improvement that took old concrete cubicles and built a larger living space around the elephants' needs, at the same time giving them choice and control over their daily activities.
"This is phenomenal for Asian elephants, which are from tropical Asia," he said "They're not walking on cold concrete."
National Zoo Asian Elephants: http://nationalzoo.si.edu/Animals/AsianElephants/
Follow Brett Zongker on Twitter at https://twitter.com/DCArtBeat