The elephant in the room with Oregon Zoo bond

Voters approved a $125 million bond in 2008

Construction in progress for Elephant Lands at the Oregon Zoo, April 2015 (KOIN 6 News)
Construction in progress for Elephant Lands at the Oregon Zoo, April 2015 (KOIN 6 News)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — In 2008, voters approved a bond for the Oregon Zoo that said elephants would get “more humane conditions” and that “outdoor space will increase from 1.5 to six acres, adding watering holes, shade structures, large trees and boulders, providing more outside exercise and offering a more natural environment.”

The Oregon Humane Society backed the bond because they believed there would be an off-site elephant reserve.

Sharon Harmon with the Oregon Humane Society, April 2015 (KOIN)
Sharon Harmon with the Oregon Humane Society, April 2015 (KOIN)

“We went to meetings about it,” said Sharon Harmon with the Oregon Humane Society. “We definitely came away with the impression that there would be an offsite reserve for the elephants.”

Some say the Oregon Zoo and Metro – the agency that oversees the zoo — promised voters that off-site elephant sanctuary.

“That was included in there to kind of draw in animal people like us who are more suspicious of the zoo and Metro,” said Jon Gramstad with Free Oregon Zoo Elephants.

Both Oregon Zoo and Metro officials say that is not true.

“That wasn’t in the original ballot measure,” said Heid Rahn, the zoo’s bond program director. The expanded elephant space, she said, is “an extension of our programming … We’ve been calling it a remote elephant center.”

A rendering of Elephant Lands at the Oregon Zoo, April 2015 (KOIN 6 News)
A rendering of Elephant Lands at the Oregon Zoo, April 2015 (KOIN 6 News)

 

KOIN 6 News obtained a video taken by a private citizen in May 2008, six months before the vote. Metro Councilor Carlotta Collette said at that time, “There is money for the offsite facility in this bond. We are committed to building the best elephant facility we can have in the zoo and in the community, in our region, and so that money is in here.”

Heidi Rahn, the Oregon Zoo's bond program director, April 2015 (KOIN)
Heidi Rahn, the Oregon Zoo’s bond program director, April 2015 (KOIN)

Collette did not respond to requests from KOIN 6 News for an interview, and KOIN 6 News was not granted access to her or other Metro officials at a scheduled public meeting.

A Metro document from November 2014 shows the bond oversight committee discussing the remote elephant center. A 240-acre site at Roslyn Lake would cost $1 million a year to run, and “a funding source has yet to be identified.”

Rahn said, “We have money set aside to construct an offsite elephant facility, should it be something that the Metro Council choose to go forward with.”

Packy, the oldest and most famous of the elephants at the Oregon Zoo, April 2015 (KOIN 6 News)
Packy, the oldest and most famous of the elephants at the Oregon Zoo, April 2015 (KOIN 6 News)

“The Metro Council allocated $7.2 million, $5.8 million of which was from the bond and $1.4 million from private donors, earmarked for feasibility, due diligence and, if appropriate, land purchase and construction,” said Hova Najarian the Media & Public Relations Officer for Oregon Zoo.

Some animal advocates say the concept of an elephant refuge or sanctuary was brought up to get the $125 million bond to pass.

The Humane Society’s Harmon said it’s been six years since the bond passed “and still no reserve has been created and now it appears that it may not be.”

Metro has been doing studies on the Roslyn Lake land and they have some possible environmental and engineering concerns.

Studies on the site show the land may be too wet for elephants and there is the possibility elephant waste could drain into the Sandy River.

This was outlined in Oregon Zoo Bond Citizens’ Oversight Committee from November 2014.

Meeting notes indicate, “Heidi Rahn said the water on the Roslyn Lake site could be a deal-breaker. The issue is to keep elephant waste out of the stream, and the team will study that this fall. A buffer is needed to protect the stream, which feeds into the Sandy River. These infrastructure needs could limit the amount of space available to the elephants.”

Rahn told KOIN 6 News the studies have been also been measuring whether “is it too wet, not too wet, is there water available.”

Construction on the new elephant habitat at the Oregon Zoo, Sept. 3, 2014 (KOIN 6 News)
Construction on the new elephant habitat at the Oregon Zoo, Sept. 3, 2014 (KOIN 6 News)

Another site for the remote elephant center has not been located, which was also discussed in the same November 2014 Oregon Zoo Bond Citizens’ Oversight Committee meeting. “Metro’s real estate staff is still looking for other possible Remote Elephant Center sites, but nothing has been identified.”

Meanwhile, Oregon Zoo elephant curator Bob Lee said the zoo’s new Elephant Lands triples the room the elephants have to roam, which will vastly improve their quality of life.

“This is their home this is what they know their around people that they have known for all of their lives. We’ve created this to be their home,” Lee told KOIN 6 News.

By Fall 2015 the full scope of the new space at the Oregon Zoo will be connected.

“I think the entire habitat is designed to be” like a sanctuary, he said.

KOIN 6 News was told Metro paid PGE $10 for the land option fee on the Roslyn Lake property, paid for out of the zoo’s capital funds, not bond funds.

If Metro does go through with the purchase of the Roslyn Lake land, they will pay $925,000 dollars for it.

Total costs so far, for looking into the possibility of building a remote elephant center are at about $118,000.

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