At the National Zoo: Elephants in the 'Hood

Elephant at the National Zoo
Smithsonian National Zoo
Elephant at the National Zoo

One of the really, really swell things about living where I do in the Lanier Heights of Adams Morgan is that I can walk to the National Zoo. Which meant that today, even though it was bitter cold on a day that is supposed to be a part of spring, I could walk over to the zoo to the press opening for the National Zoo’s new state-of-the-art Elephant Community Center, part of its Elephant Trail program that also includes an Elephant Barn which opened in September.

Walking over we ran into National Zoo Director Dennis Kelly who was headed in the same direction. “This is about saving the Asian elephant,” Kelly said. “Wait until you see. It’s not just an exhibit. It’s something we all care about passionately. There is a real threat here. This is about research, observation and study. It’s a great opportunity for us.” The Asian elephant is on the endangered species list.

“I know some people who remember this from way back,” he said. “I used to live near National Cathedral. I could walk here all the time. Sure, it’s a great thing to have as part of your neighborhood.”

The zoo's chief veterinarian Suzan Murray is obviously passionate about the elephants. They number three now, although the zoo wants to build a functioning, familial herd of “maybe seven to ten elephants,” she said

Once you get in the new center—the former elephant house, which housed, back in the day not just elephants but rhinoceros, hippos and giraffes—you get an real sense of space and excitement about the future. And that’s before the three elephants Ambika, Shanti and Kandula actually arrive—well, two, because Kandula, who is Shanti’s son—has opted to stay outside. Kids are making elephant noises on an exhibit that lets them do it. There are press persons and parents and elephant keepers milling around with each other, looking at the new center, which has the look of something bigger, plenty of light, a sand (and heated) floor, lots of straw and branches and toys, which lets the elephant keep their minds bus and a pedal which lets the elephant turn on the shower.

If you want to talk about elephant passion—it’s hard to pick among Murray, Marie Galloway, the elephant keeper at the zoo for the past 26 years, or the three children who were the winners of the Washingtonian Magazine’s letter writing contest, Ethan Schipper, a kindergarten student at Westbriar Elementary School in Vienna, Sarah Price, a third grader at Woodacre Elementary School in Bethesda, and Tony Phonemany, a fifth grader at Crestwood Elementary School in Springfield.

The children were there with their families, high energy as you expect but when Shanti and Ambika ambled in, they—and everybody else—got quiet. Elephants of all ages and stages remain mysterious, proud animals. They’re tool users but also playful, slow and big—their weight runs into tonnage. Unlike, say, Pandas, who get by on unworldly cuteness, elephants get respect wherever they might appear—they’ve got majestic mojo, no question.

Maybe the most passionate and most excited person in the room was Galloway who tells you that Ambika was actually very shy about entering the new space, while Shanti raced toward it the minute the doors opened and her son opted for the cautious way. “He backed in,” she told the gathered press. “So, yes, elephants do walk backward.”

“I could talk about elephants all day if you let me. Elephant stories,” she said. “They are so very, very smart. So, we do things all over the enclosure—hide treats or food, let them figure things out. You’ll never get to the end of everything there is to know about them.”

Ethan Schipper wants to work with elephants. “I want to save your family,” he wrote in his letter. “He gave all the contents in piggy bank—$1.85—to help the elephants. “This is the woman who helped when Kandula was born. She caught him.” Ethan stood silent, one of those best-day-of-your-life moments difficult to articulate whether you’re five or 85.

The Elephant Community Center is part of Elephant Trails project, a $56-million effort which began several years ago and which now which totals 8,984 square meters. The community center features state of the art animal care facilities, space for socializing, training and playing, has climate control a wading pool and shower, and it is a complete green building.

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Fri, 19 Dec 2014 09:25:25 -0500

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