National Zoo's new $56 million elephant habitat opens Saturday

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Local,DC,April Burbank

When Marie Galloway stepped up to a podium Thursday at the Smithsonian's National Zoo, she was quick to acknowledge the elephant in the room -- two of them, to be precise.

As two Asian elephants foraged in the background, Galloway and other leaders described the zoo's new indoor elephant habitat, the final piece of a seven-year project that will open to the public on Saturday.

"We managed to take good care of elephants in our old exhibit, but we did it despite the facility," Galloway, an elephant manager at the zoo, told the Washington Examiner after her presentation. "Now you look at the exhibit and we can talk to people about conservation and talk to people about what matters to elephants instead of trying to convince them that we care, because it's pretty obvious that we care."

The zoo's three Asian elephants, Ambika, Shanthi and Kandula, have already moved in to the Elephant Community Center, a renovated 1930s building that used to hold giraffes, rhinos and hippos.

The indoor facility is the last component of the zoo's $56 million Elephant Trails project. At nearly 30,000 square feet, the exhibit has enough space for up to 10 adult elephants and their young.

The animals can wade through pools and play with toys such as scratch posts and giant tires in the exhibit's nine indoor areas and seven outdoor enclosures.

Aside from viewing the elephants up close, visitors will also be able to learn about elephant conservation efforts, be weighed on an elephant-sized scale and take a photo in the exhibit's photo booth, among other activities.

"What we envisioned was the visitor would come in here and be able to see hear and smell what it is to be an elephant," said Donald Moore, associate director of animal care sciences.

The exhibit also emphasizes the Smithsonian's research into elephant reproduction, disease, cognition and migration.

"We really want to engage people, let them have a good time, but at the same time let them know that every action they take impacts biodiversity and that by doing simple things, we can save species from extinction," said Director Dennis Kelly.

The new Elephant Trails exhibit officially opens at noon Saturday.

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