Bring your trunks! Zoo elephants enjoy family swim

July 8, 2014 - 12:46pm

New 160,000-gallon pool will make a big splash at Elephant Lands next year

As temperatures at the Oregon Zoo soared near the 100-degree mark last week, Asian elephant Rose-Tu did what a lot of moms do on hot afternoons: took her kids for a swim.

The 8,000-pound pachyderm — along with her 5-year-old son, Samudra, and 1-year-old daughter, Lily — plunged into a pool at the zoo's Asian elephant habitat, cooling off and scooping up apple and celery treats tossed in by keepers. Lily did a little "surfing" on the back of her big brother, as aunties Shine and Chendra looked on from the water's edge, wetting their toes and filling their trunks to splash themselves.

Meanwhile, just to the north of this family swim, work continued on the zoo's expansive new Elephant Lands habitat, where construction is underway on two new ponds for pachyderms: a "smallish" 5,000-gallon wading pool and a larger, 160,000-gallon pool that promises to be rare in size for most zoos.

"The 160,000-gallon pool will be the second-largest in the history of the zoo," said Wayne Starkey, a zoo project engineer who helps oversee projects funded by the community-supported zoo bond measure that passed in 2008.

The larger pool — 80 feet wide and 12 feet deep — will be located near Elephant Plaza, a new greeting area that will introduce visitors to the entire habitat. Among its notable features are a gently sloping entry point for the elephants and an adjustable water level.

Most of the time, the water will be around 12 feet deep, Starkey said — enough for even the tallest bull elephant, like Packy, who stands 10.5 feet at the shoulders, to completely submerge. But when necessary — if the herd were raising a baby, say — the level could be adjusted to ensure a little one's safety.

Both pools will incorporate state-of-the-art filtration and water-treatment systems that will completely filter the pool every hour — 24 times a day — to maintain water quality and allow re-use. (The current system necessitates dumping and refilling daily.)

The pool also will include a play jet that sprays bursts of water, controlled remotely from a keeper presentation area.

"That will be like the elephant version of the fountains at Tom McCall Waterfront Park or Jamison Square that you always see kids playing in," Starkey said. "We expect the elephants to have a lot of fun with it."

Starkey notes the pools are not mere landscape or technological decoration.

"Elephants need a variety of terrains," Starkey said. "So the family here will be encouraged to wade in and out of the pools and generally roam around the larger habitat in ways they couldn't before. Foraging for food will occur in new and different ways, too, keeping elephants curious and alert."

Elephant Lands — the fourth of eight major projects funded by the community-supported 2008 zoo bond measure — is a sweeping expansion of the Oregon Zoo's Asian elephant habitat that will quadruple the animals' space and dramatically enhance their daily experiences. Work on the new habitat, which has been carefully sequenced to gradually expand the elephants' accessible space in phases, will be completed in the fall of 2015.