Friday, May 05, 2000
Elephants' world opens wide
Zoo's $6.5-million exhibit bigger, more natural for beasts, accessible to visitors
By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer
The elephants already know it, and the public will find out Saturday: The new Schott-Unnewehr Vanishing Giants exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo is the best of all worlds.
My-Thai enjoys her new 4.3-acre living room with elephant keeper Cecil Jackson Jr.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
| ZOOM |
It's huge, it's lush and it's state-of-the-art.
Located in the southwest corner of the zoo, Vanishing Giants is the new 4.3-acre home of elephants Schottzie, My-Thai and Ganesh plus three giraffes (only one will be here for the opening) and four okapi (not all of them will be here for the opening either).
Named in honor of longtime zoo patron Marge Schott (Unnewehr is her maiden name), the $6 million renovation of the 1906 elephant house and yard is the second largest project in zoo history, ranking right behind Jungle Trails. It gives the animals four times more space outdoors and three times more indoors.
And yes, it is the best of all possible worlds. Or at least of all possible zoo worlds.
Long before construction began, when the renovation was still a twinkle in director Ed Maruska's eye, he and associate director Jack Huelsman visited elephant compounds in zoos all over the country.
I think I went to eight, and Ed went to a few others, Mr. Huelsman said. I took pictures and asked questions, then incorporated the best ideas and got rid of what didn't work. We did that to make sure this would be the best it possibly could be.
The mosque-like elephant house, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has been restored to its original colors deep red-brown and shades of beige.
The base of the dome and arches over the windows now have inlaid blue, white and red-brown tiles in a pattern taken from a building near the Taj Mahal. Concrete floors have been covered with a pink marble-like substance.
Even the layout is new.
In the original layout, visitors entered one end and walked down a long corridor with animals on each side. Vanishing Giants turns things sideways, with the elephant viewing area running the full width of the building on one side and the giraffe and okapi area side-by-side at the opposite end. Between them, there's a wide corridor and off-exhibit animal holding areas (bedrooms, stalls for medical exams, a secluded breeding nook).
Visitors now walk in and come face-to-face with the elephants. There are no bars; cables strung between columns keep the elephants on their own side of the exhibit.
The downside is visitors walk in one side, see the elephants, then leave the building, walk around the path and re-enter to see the giraffes and okapi.
But Mr. Maruska thinks that's a good thing because it gets people outdoors, and that's where the exhibit comes in to its own.
The elephants have a new two-tier yard, complete with a waterfall and 60,000 gallon pool that Mr. Maruska wanted to equip with an underwater viewing area but couldn't find the extra million it would take.
The upper yard is a dusty, rocky plane. The lower is a tropical forest with exotic grasses and plantings so thick that traffic bustling by on roads outside the zoo is no longer visible.
The elephants also get an expanded performance yard with shaded bleachers seating 420. It also faces north so visitors can watch the elephants with Swan Lake in the background.
The new yards are big enough that you're going to see something you've never seen at the Cincinnati Zoo, Mr. Huelsman said. You'll see an elephant run.
One thing you won't see much of are bars, fences and other restraints. Fences are hidden by the huge array of exotic plantings, many of them built on mounds to give the terrain a rolling look.
The moats separating animals from people are soft moats, constructed at an angle so visitors can't see it's a moat. From the viewing area, it looks like any other gentle slope in the animal's environment.
Key words there are animal's environment. The old zoo practice was to pluck animals from their environment and drop them into ours concrete walls and floors, barred cages, dusty yards with a ratty shrub or two.
The trend today, one that Vanishing Giants is at the forefront of, is to create a compound that mimics the animal's natural habitat.
That's why both the visitors' side and the animals' side are full of plantings native to Africa, Asia and India.
You'll see teak trees; Asian toon trees; jujube shrubs; grasses that resemble a bamboo forest; acacia trees; mimosa; wild indigo; orange-leafed croton thickets.
In some cases, the trees are the genuine article, imported from their homelands. In cases where Cincinnati's climate would kill the genuine article, director of horticulture Dave Ehrlinger used hardy relatives that only a trained eye can distinguish.
The plantings and hidden fences almost make Vanishing Giants an immersion exhibit.
True immersion exhibits are almost impossible with elephants, said Dr. Michael Hutchins, director of conservation and science at the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. They're too large and too dangerous.
But to a certain extent, I'd say yes, it does give you the impression you're on the savannah ... but more important, I think it's an exhibit that meets the animals physical and psychological needs.
It hasn't been easy getting to this point. This has been a difficult process, Mr. Maruska said, because the elephant is so difficult to design around. They're big and they're destructive. Other than man, the elephant is the only animal that destroys his environment.
But they're also the most popular animal. We've done several surveys and only the panda has ever out-rated them.
Reason enough to keep them happy, something the renovation already seems to have accomplished.
On April 17, the sunny day they moved from temporary quarters to their new digs, zoo public relations representative Chad Yelton was being interviewed on a nearby bench.
The elephants decided to let everyone know what they thought of their new home and began trumpeting so loudly and so often that the interview had to move to another bench.
Happy elephants, those.
Big events could crowd city streets
What's happening this weekend
RADEL: Join party for city, landmark
Elephants' world opens wide
'Love bug' disrupts Tristate computers
A monument to steamboats
Doctor group cuts offices and jobs
'Son of Beast' likely to reopen Saturday
Stadium manager bidding approved
Clinton pushes school proposals
Flynts break ground on Mornoe store
Inquiry widening in Butler Co. probe
Luxury suites at unbuilt Reds park set sales record
Maifest plan aims to curb rowdy crowds
MRDD member could be ousted
Teachers fight back at layoffs
CSO gives Mahler radiant moments
GET TO IT
KIESEWETTER: Cable access salutes best work
Parents can make excellent neighbors
Queen City's moments to shine reflected in book
Students 'Pigture Success'
Baseball 1860-style coming to Delhi Twp.
Dental board faces questions
Faith, football and family values
Four would-be mayors differ on city priorities
Kent State bell tolls
Kentucky, horses linked since Daniel Boone's day
Property sale allows ministry to start museum
Protest planned on anthrax vaccine
Public housing tenants agree to move
Report: Traffic stop was valid
Ross High plans to expand
Senior arrested in possible threat
Teacher denies theft
Three students in trouble for threats to schools
Underground limestone mine moving closer for Boone County