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Sedgwick County Zoo members and elephants are happy together

Elephants unpack their trunks in new home

The Reed Family Elephants of the Zambezi River Valley at the Sedgwick County Zoo was open to zoo members. (video by Jaime Green) May 11, 2016
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The Reed Family Elephants of the Zambezi River Valley at the Sedgwick County Zoo was open to zoo members. (video by Jaime Green) May 11, 2016

The Sedgwick County Zoo’s members got their first chance to see the zoo’s new elephants on Wednesday — and the new residents saw the first people in line and headed the other way.

“People come out and the elephants run,” Kathleen McCrea of Wichita said bemusedly.

“Isn’t that typical?” responded fellow fan Andrea McEwen.

The young elephants, 6 to 8 years old, are much too mobile to stay put in any one place

But these young elephants, 6 to 8 years old, are much too mobile to stay put in any one place. Before long they had turned around to face the people now arrayed under a broad, grass-roofed pavilion — and started running toward them.

Sedgwick County Zoo members get first look at elephant exhibit. (Video by Annie Calovich)

“Here comes one!” someone gasped. Arms on the pavilion shot into the air in greeting, grins spread, cameras recorded, and “Hi!” Destiny Yates of Wichita hollered at them. Then to her 1-year-old son, Jace, in a stroller: “Give ’em a wave!” It was Jace’s first time to see an elephant.

“Hello, elephants!” yelled 8-year-old Paul Nicholson. Most of the children who came out to see the elephants on the first of three days of members-only visits to the new Reed Family Elephants of the Zambezi River Valley were, like Paul, homeschooled. (Except for little Jed Wheeler, who skipped preschool.)

The exhibit opens to the public on Memorial Day weekend, and people can get glimpses of the elephants on weekends already from a $3 boat ride that goes through part of the zoo.

“They’re great,” Paul said of the elephants. “The baby even said hi. He was wavin’ his trunk at us.”

‘In constant motion’

Zoo members not only were thrilled to see the animals, which arrived March 11 from Swaziland. They were thrilled that the elephants — endangered in their own land, the subject of a court fight to keep them there, and therefore a subject of pity as well as awe — seemed so joyful to be in their new home.

“I love their little ears — they’re all happy,” Mary Schmidt of Newton said. And indeed the elephants were quite animated, flapping their actually not-so-little ears, lifting their trunks – smiling?

It sure seemed that way.

They just keep toolin’ around. They’re in constant motion.

Melissa Graham, the zoo’s marketing director

“They amaze me,” said Melissa Graham, the zoo’s marketing director, who has had more time to watch the elephants than the rest of us – at least so far. “They just keep toolin’ around. They’re in constant motion.”

The fact that they’re a little underweight and young adds to the endearment.

The Reed Family Elephants of the Zambezi River Valley at the Sedgwick County Zoo was open to zoo members. (video by Jaime Green) May 11, 2016

The members also loved the 10 acres that hold the new exhibit. It’s arranged in several indoor and outdoor areas, and eventually visitors will be able to enter at one of four different points.

Starting Memorial Day weekend, the boat rides will be offered every day through the summer. “The highlight would be, if and when the elephants go for a swim, you will be sharing the same water with the elephants,” Graham said.

Along the path

On Wednesday, the members were directed through the south entrance, which gives people a sweeping view of grassy terrain to the north, the elephants visible at a distance. The path first passes by the 12-foot-deep elephant pool — which the elephants so far haven’t shown any interest in entering — and past a platform reached by a spiral staircase where keepers can give the elephants water-cannon showers.

The path then reaches Spirit Camp Zambezi, the covered pavilion, in the middle of it all. Mood music from Swaziland plays from speakers, wooden benches encircle support posts painted with African designs, and a fire pit tells you that the shelter will be used for private parties and other after-hours zoo events.

As you move along the edge of the curved pavilion, you can see the elephants pretty much wherever they are in the exhibit – unless they’re indoors. Stephanie, the zoo’s 44-year-old matron, is in her own area for now, to the left.

Ways to identify all seven elephants at the Sedgwick County Zoo. (video by Jaime Green) May 11, 2016

Another couple of the new elephants are also in their own yards, visible only at a distance toward the enclosure to the north. And the four younger kids are taking advantage of much of the rest of the acreage, crossing the stream (but strategically, so as not to get wet), snapping tree limbs, skipping.

Beyond them, and beyond a fence of 16-foot lodgepole pines that look like bamboo, you can see incongruent traffic on Zoo Boulevard and the new 13th Street overpass.

In the boma

Back outside the pavilion, the path then leads around the North Habitat, where Stephanie is now, with a waterfall and small wading pool. And then it’s off to the “boma,” or barn (with a stop along the way to see the red river hogs swimming in their habitat to the left).

Visitors can stand at the edge of the aromatic boma and look in to see where the elephants, for now, stay at night, and where they will take shelter when the weather’s too cold: giant ceiling fans above, a floor of sand below, a leafless tree in the middle mostly trimmed of its limbs, upside-down tree branches stuck in the bars, nets of food suspended from the ceiling for elephant browsing, huge overhead doors leading outside.

They just keep toolin’ around. They’re in constant motion.

Melissa Graham, the zoo’s marketing director

“Cool, very cool. They’ve got a really cool setup,” Kathleen McCrea’s husband, Wyatt, told her. “Look how thick that steel is. They’ve got heating and air-conditioning and la-di-da.”

His wife agreed, and reveled in Wichita’s newest attraction.

“It’s such a fabulous zoo,” Kathleen McCrea said. “It makes you proud.”

The Sedgwick County Zoo will introduce the new elephant exhibit, Elephants of the Zambezi River Valley, this week for a members' preview. (Mike Hutmacher, The Wichita Eagle)

Annie Calovich: 316-268-6596, @anniecalovich

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