PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — After years of construction and a fair share of controversy, the new elephant habitat will open Wednesday at the Oregon Zoo.
Elephant Lands, the $57 million project approved by taxpayers in 2008, will officially open Dec. 16, although its primary residents are already there.
But having elephants at all at the zoo has been controversial over the years.
A group called Free the Oregon Zoo Elephants protested at the front entrance. They claimed the new habitat is a waste of taxpayer money and far from adequate for the animals.
Courtney Scott with Free the Oregon Zoo Elephants re-iterated their claim the habitat is overpriced and inadequate.
“The most inadequate thing is the space,” Scott told KOIN 6 News. “It’s really not much more space than what they had before when you subtract the areas for the visitors and the staff. It’s about 4 acres.”
She also compared elephants to orcas, both “uniquely unsuited to captivity.” Scott cited a 2014 editorial in the Scientific American. “An orca needs an ocean. An elephant needs miles, miles to roam,” Scott said.
Both elephants and orcas “are so large it’s a little bit obvious, really, that they need a bigger space than any zoo (or aquarium) can provide.”
The new space is about 6 acres, roughly 4 times the size of their previous spot. Zoo leaders describe it as a new era for the elephants designed to promote animal welfare and herd socialization, connecting outdoor areas with communal indoor spaces.
Teri Dresler, the interim director of the Oregon Zoo, said Elephant Lands is “sort of unbelievable for those of us who have been around the zoo for years and grew accustomed to such a small habitat.”
She said the new space gives the elephants the opportunity to be elephants, and they’ve already seen positive changes and new social interactions.
“We have every reason to believe that the concept of this design and the desired increase in care for these animals and the welfare they’ll receive will come to be a reality,” Dresler said.
The new habitat allows visitors to be close to the elephants.
“We hope to really inspire people to create a better future for wildlife,” she said.
But opponent Courtney Scott said the improvements are mostly for the visitors, who can now get closer to the elephants.
Elephant curator Bob Lee said they’ve already seen changes in the elephants since they’ve opened the habitat in phases.
Throughout those areas there are 3 to 4 feet of sand, which zoo officials said is designed to cushion their feet and give the animals a workout.
“The sand was beneficial for their feet and for drainage,” Lee said. The rain washes through it and into drainage underneath. “So it keeps the ground soft. It doesn’t pack down but it doesn’t collect the water like it used to,” he said, which gives the elephants better feet and stronger nails.
In a press release, the Free the Oregon Zoo Elephants said sand contributed to a foot infection for one of the elephants and the small lots do not provide enough roaming space for the elephants.
Of the 6 acres, Lee said almost 2 acres to the north and another in the south can be connected. Lee said that is a big enough space for these elephants.
“What we’ve done here is given them choice and determination,” Lee said. “We keep them motivated to move and explore. That’s the critical part.”
The space allows the elephants to make their own decisions on when to eat, when and where to drink and where to play instead of zookeepers making those decisions for them.
But Scott said they’re learning elephants in the wild behave much differently than they do in captivity.
Free the Oregon Zoo Elephants and another group, In Defense of Animals, want the zoo to retire Packy, the oldest and most famous of the elephants, stop its breeding program and not import any elephants from the wild.
Lee knows there is criticism of the zoo over their care for the elephants. But he just wants people to come and take a look.
“We invite everybody to come in and take a look at Elephant Lands. Take a look at what we’ve offered the animals, take a look at the lives they’re leading and make the decision for themselves” he said.