By Katy Muldoon
Samudra charged out the back door of the Oregon Zoo elephant barn one morning this week, trotted across a sandy new yard and zeroed in on a bamboo branch.
The leafy treats scattered around his new habitat gave the 5-year-old Asian elephant plenty of reason to explore its connected outdoor rooms and their furnishings: heat lamps, misters, wind breaks, automated feeding stations, logs worthy of balancing upon and mounds of sand perfect for climbing.
His cohorts followed: Chendra, Rose-Tu, little Lily and finally Shine, who always is wary of anything new, says Bob Lee, elephant curator.
Over the past few days, most of the zoo's herd has gotten a taste of what their future holds. Construction crews completed the first portion of the zoo's 6.25-acre, $57 million Elephant Lands exhibit late last week and the pachyderms first got access to it the next day.
The entire exhibit, four times larger than the old elephant quarters, will extend around the zoo's eastern edge. Its southern reaches, where the animals cavorted this week, abuts the concert lawn. By the time construction is completed in fall 2015, it will stretch northward to the area that formerly housed Elk Meadow.
The exhibit is one of many zoo projects paid for by a bond measure voters passed in 2008.
The next construction phase will include building Forest Hall, a space in which elephants will be able to get out of the weather if they choose, and where visitors will get good views from elevated walkways.
In the next few days, Lee said, keepers plan to introduce Tusko, a 13,300-pound bull elephant, to the new slice of exhibit. The big animal's expertise might teach keepers what needs to be tweaked.
"That'll be the true test," Lee said. "He's so strong and smart that he tests everything. Anything that can be destroyed, he will destroy."
Zoo personnel studied elephant facilities around the world when working up ideas for the new exhibit. One they brought home, after visiting Ireland's Dublin Zoo, was to cover the exhibit in deep, soft, porous sand. Lee remembers watching elephants in Ireland interact with the sand in all sorts of ways, tossing it with their trunks and digging up treats keepers had buried.
Plus, he knew sand was the best solution for a longtime zoo problem: elephant foot ailments. Many zoos, including Portland's, struggled with the problem for years. In 1998, elephant experts from around the world convened in Portland for the first professional conference on elephant foot care. Today, Lee said, the problems are under control among the Oregon Zoo's elephants.
Lee brought a sample of Ireland sand back to the Elephant Lands design team and to Wayne Starkey, project engineer. He explored local sources of sand and brought in truckload-sized samples from CalPortland for testing by the experts – the elephants.
The winner: a type of sand referred to as USGA topdressing, typically used on golf courses.
It drained beautifully, Lee said, after Portland's recent snow melted.
Eventually, an estimated 15,000 cubic yards of the sand will be spread at least four feet deep throughout the entire exhibit.
This week, Lily, the youngest member of the herd at about 14 months old, repeatedly charged up mounds of the stuff, observed her world and charged down the other side – maybe the equivalent of an elephant thumb's-up.
"She loves," Lee said, "to play king of the hill." Video and photos.