The Metro Council on Thursday discussed the creation of an independent review board to study the feasibility of creating a remote elephant center outside the zoo. Interim zoo director Teri Dresler said that group’s confirmed membership is to be finalized by the end of the month.
“My sense is that this is going to have enough political attention that having an independent, outside source give us the recommendation is a stronger way of demonstrating that we…considered all facets,” said Metro Council President Tom Hughes at the work session.
The council's discussion came on the same day that the Oregon Zoo opened the North Meadow of its Elephant Lands exhibit.
In 2008, 59 percent of voters supported a $125 million bond measure to make improvements at the Oregon Zoo by updating animal enclosures, modernizing the zoo’s animal clinic, increasing access to conservation education, and making changes to improve water quality and conserve water and energy on the zoo campus.
Measure 26-96 identified eight major projects: a new veterinary medical center, new habitats for California condors, Asian elephants, polar bears, primates and hippos (later changed to rhinos), a new education center and a new water filtration system for Humboldt penguins.
While the bond measure did not mention a remote elephant center, the Metro Council resolution passed the previous May that approved sending the bond measure to voters noted: “the zoo is exploring the feasibility of providing an off-site area for elephants. Funds are set aside for potential capital needs of off-site space.” The remote facility was mentioned during the bond measure campaign and caught the attention of many people across the region.
The Asian elephant habitat portion of the bond measure has been dubbed Elephant Lands and is the zoo's most ambitious project to date. It builds upon the more than fifty years of elephant care and research. According to keepers and designers, the new habitat provides choices for how these highly intelligent and active animals can spend their days - by roaming varied landscapes, swimming in wallows, participating in enrichment activities and spending time together and apart as a herd.
“We’ve learned a lot about caring for elephants since the 1950s,” said Bob Lee, the zoo’s elephant curator upon the opening of the North Meadow Thursday. “We’re grateful for the chance to put all that knowledge into this new habitat, which is going to make the lives of all the elephants so much better. This is going to be huge.”
The North Meadow opening on Thursday was an exciting milestone for Portland’s famous elephant family, according to zoo staff. At a little after 10 a.m., keepers escorted the female herd along a walkway from Forest Hall leading to an entirely new vista: a wide, hilly terrain stretching north to the zoo’s veterinary medical center and Family Farm.
Shawn Finnell, the zoo’s senior elephant keeper, said Shine was the first to venture all the way in, scooping up sweet potatoes and apples as she went. And 2-year-old Lily was predictably rambunctious, scooting atop rocks, climbing onto giant logs and stretching her trunk upward to try to reach a boom suspending food high in the air above her new space.
“It was amazing to watch,” Finnell said. “They seemed at home almost immediately. Chendra hesitated a bit before walking in, but once they stepped through the gate, they all moved with complete confidence.”
In spite of the success of the new elephant habitat at the zoo, some citizens have continued to call for a new remote elephant center.
“Prior to the bond passing, then zoo director Tony Vecchio believed it would be necessary to move the elephants off the zoo campus during construction of their new habitat and that a benefactor in the community would donate acreage for an offsite facility,” said Scott Robinson, Metro’s deputy chief operating officer.
Robinson said that while the donation never materialized, zoo staff set about determining the feasibility of a remote elephant center, identifying the essential attributes of any potential sites, including acreage, travel distance from the zoo, topography, road access, adjacent uses, and zoning among other issues.
Meanwhile, as staff and architects designed bond-funded improvements to the zoo campus, zoo managers determined that keeping the elephants on site during construction would be less disruptive to them. The design team developed a complex phasing scheme that has allowed the elephants to move into each new component of their habitat as it is completed and to never have less space than provided in the original exhibit provided. The elephants will have access to the entire custom-designed Elephant Lands habitat at the end of the year.