Zoo adding safety barrier to protect aging elephants

04/26/2012 10:37 AM

08/05/2014 5:49 PM

Stephanie and Cinda are no spring chickens.

The truth of the matter is that the zoo's two South African bush elephants are close to 40 years old — old by elephant standards.

So, Stephanie and Cinda's exhibit at the Sedgwick County Zoo is about to get a new look — and some visitors may not like it.

It's a safety issue for the aging elephants, the zoo says.

Work began this week to replace the moat in the exhibit with an 8-foot-tall post-and-cable fence.

Zoo officials are concerned that the elephants, who like to stretch their trunks out for treats and grass on the other side, could lose their balance and fall into the moat.

"With each passing day and year this balancing act becomes more nerve-racking for our zookeepers," said Mark Reed, director of the Sedgwick County Zoo. "All it would take is one misstep and we could have a dangerous situation for our elephants."

Although zoo officials have plans to build a new, much larger elephant exhibit — with additional elephants, construction most likely won't begin until the local and national economy significantly improve, Reed said. In the meantime the fence, which should be completed by mid-March, will help keep the elephants safe.

On Thursday, the elephants, their zookeepers and Reed talked about the exhibit — 1,900 square feet of space — and the elephants who have been at the zoo since the fall of 1972.

"There is no question these are our two most noted animals," Reed said. "If we did not have elephants here, we would not be able to raise the kind of money we do for conservation programs. They are the classic umbrella species. By saving elephants and elephant habitat, we are saving all sorts of other animals."

As elephants age, "They have the same issues we do — stiff joints and arthritis," said zookeeper Norma Gheen. "Our girls are on an exercise program that we follow daily with them."

Weather permitting, the elephants are walked 30 minutes daily and have a series of exercises they do several times a day — the equivalent of leg lifts, sit-ups and push-ups.

They also do a series of life-enrichment activities that include playing piano and painting and games like basketball and soccer.

"We have a TV in the back room where they like to watch action stuff," Gheen said. "Cinda likes to watch the talk shows like Jerry Springer and football."

Reed said Thursday that zoo officials are currently having construction documents completed highlighting what a new elephant exhibit could look like.

"If the economy hadn't crashed we'd already be on target for the new exhibit," Reed said. "We'd be doing a capital campaign. But we have put everything on hold and are watching the conditions of the economy. We've done a feasibility study, talked with supporters and hope to have something to announce this summer."

Once started, Reed said, the new exhibit could take up to three years to complete.

It would include up to 8 1/2 acres of space — of which the public would see 4.75 acres, Reed said. It would include a breeding facility for the elephants. Preliminary plans also call for a river in which 500 feet of the river water would be shared by the elephants and visitors on boat rides — the exhibit would have underwater barriers separating the people and elephants.

"I got the idea while fishing on the Zambezi River and having wild elephants all around me," Reed said. "I thought we could do this in Wichita."

Reed said he has no idea yet what the new exhibit will cost, but it will be "the most expensive thing we've ever built."

For now, Reed said, Wichitans will have to be content with the exhibit as it is — and allow for the existing two elephants' safety as they age. He also wants to whet people's interest for what could be next.

"We knew that if we came out here and put up posts and cable people would start asking questions, "Reed said. "We thought we would be proactive. We have talked about doing this for the last two years. I decided we couldn't wait any longer."

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