Find out how this new habitat will support a richer social and family life for Asian elephants.
Elephants – a zoo legacy
Elephants are complex, intelligent animals with deep and tender attachment to one another. In the wild, female elephants live in family groups led by one dominant female adult, the matriarch. Aunties, grandmothers, sisters, and cousins typically remain together for life, collectively nurturing, teaching and protecting their offspring. The Oregon Zoo is designing a new habitat for elephants that supports these multigenerational matriarchal herds because much like us, these lifelong relationships are an essential component of their well-being. In addition, the zoo is offering its bull elephants a much richer social and family life by providing them the opportunity to socialize with females both at the zoo and eventually at a larger remote elephant center. Our goal is to gradually build these multigenerational herds so that Oregon Zoo elephants have the best quality of life.
Elephant Lands: the new, expanded elephant habitat
The zoo's elephant exhibit - Elephant Lands - will extend around the eastern edge of the zoo campus, from south of the current elephant barn and exhibit north into the former Elk Meadow. Elephants will have access to a variety of habitats and terrain, from rolling meadow to hilly forest. Designed for elephant comfort, health and enjoyment, Elephant Lands will include scratching surfaces, elephant controlled showers, pools for bathing and mud wallows to cool and protect skin.
Perhaps most important, Elephant Lands puts into practice the zoo's philosophy that all animals should have choices over how they spend their days and nights and access to the out-of-doors. Forest Hall, a multi-story covered enclosure with natural flooring, will provide elephants with shelter from summer heat and winter cold and wide-open doors to the meadows and forests, pools and wallows.
Most exciting for visitors, Elephant Lands offers completely new options for viewing these mighty and majestic animals. Within Forest Hall, visitors on elevated walkways will view elephants within a vast airy arena lit by filtered sunlight with a backdrop of native fir forest. Windows on the lower level will give an up-close elephant-eye view. Visitors will retrace the Oregon Zoo's elephant legacy in an updated museum display. The new zoo train route will also offer unique views of elephants in their meadow and forest habitats and there will be overlooks from visitor pathways throughout the exhibit. Specially designed training and exercise areas will let visitors in on the elephants' healthy habits and the care provided by our highly trained and skilled keeper staff.
Remote elephant center – a facility like no other
The Oregon Zoo is working toward a visionary goal for elephant welfare, allowing bull elephants to socially interact with female herds. This is not standard practice in zoos but will provide great benefits to elephants and aid in our collective understanding of the complex social behaviors of Asian elephants. Approximately 50 percent of elephants born in zoos are male and there is great need to plan for their care, well-being and housing.
In their natural habitat, bull elephants are not permanent members of family herds. The majority of the time spent with the females is for courtship and breeding. The rest of the time, adult males live apart. The Oregon Zoo currently manages three bull elephants and a female herd as four separated groups moving them throughout the day to provide care, exercise and access to the outdoors. A remote elephant center would provide space for bulls to engage and interact with one another as well as with a herd of females in conditions more akin to their natural setting.
In supporting the 2008 Oregon Zoo bond measure, voters gave the zoo the go-ahead to conduct a feasibility study for an offsite elephant facility. Since then the zoo has made significant progress in defining this innovative project, determining acreage, facilities and staffing needs; identifying potential properties around the region; considering appropriate levels and types of public access; and developing preliminary cost estimates. There are many more details to clarify.
Here is what is known:
- The site must be at least 140 acres for elephant use, with additional acreage to support buffer zones.
- The barn should include individual stalls, an indoor communal arena, quarantine, bathing and treatment spaces.
- There should be over 100 acres of interconnected outdoor yards with varying terrain, shade, shelter, and mud wallows.
- There must be buildings for food storage and preparation; work spaces for keepers and security staff; storage; deliveries; and waste management.
- There should be housing for a live-in caretaker.
- Current plans include a viewing area and elephant information station for scheduled tours and educational programs.
So far, the most promising property is the former site of Roslyn Lake near Sandy, currently owned by Portland General Electric. Metro continues to explore other properties around the region. The zoo is establishing a realistic timeline for this project. The remote elephant center will be designed and built in phases, growing with the herd's needs. Elephant bulls would most likely be the first occupants of this innovative facility.
Guiding principles for zoo's elephant program
- Demonstrate our deep commitment to well-being and conservation of endangered Asian elephants.
- Lead global efforts to establish and ensure the highest welfare standards.
- Improve the lives of elephants with innovative and stimulating habitat designs.
- Support families of elephants living together (multigenerational matriarchal social groups).
- Ensure male elephants a social connection to the matriarchal herds.
- Foster a broad range of elephant-specific life experiences.
- Promote social relationships and natural elephant behaviors.
- Facilitate exemplary welfare-based care (husbandry, veterinary care, behavioral training).
- Provide the public with opportunities to connect with elephants.
- Inspire and motivate our community to engage in environmental stewardship and animal conservation efforts.
- Share our knowledge, expertise and research with others.