Big zoo news

October 10, 2006

Think the impending military Base Realignment and Closure plan, with its anticipated influx of 40,000 new residents to the region, will put pressure on the local housing and highway infrastructures? Then consider what's scheduled to take place at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore late next spring when the pachyderm population will increase by 150 percent.

Under an arrangement between the Philadelphia Zoo and the Maryland Zoo, three African elephants named Petal, Kallie and Bette will be transferred from their home near the not-so-savannaesque Schuylkill Expressway for new lodgings at an improved and enlarged range in Druid Hill Park. The Philadelphia Zoo's fourth elephant, an Asian named Dulary, gets to move to a 2,000-acre sanctuary in Tennessee.

When Philadelphia Zoo officials decided to shut down their elephant exhibit, they joined 10 other zoos across the country that, for economic and humane reasons, have chosen over the past 12 years not to cage in the world's largest land animals as a gate attraction. To its credit, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums tightened its requirements for the care and management of elephants. The result is that many elephants that once suffered degenerative arthritis, bone infections, joint disease and, most likely, mental depression, caused by living in cramped quarters and standing all day on concrete surfaces, are now benefiting from vastly improved, if not ideal, living conditions in larger ranges.

When the Philadelphia trio arrives in Baltimore, they will discover a six-acre range, much roomier than the half-acre exhibit allotted them up north. Of course, they'll have to share it with current resident elephants Dolly and Ana. But zoo officials here believe the compound, complete with a special variable walking trail, will give the entire herd sufficient room to forage and wallow. Dolly and Ana will see benefits, too. Until the new range is completed, they will continue to live in their own half-acre site. Next year, the family will grow larger, but so will the digs.

And speaking of family, the Maryland Zoo's long-term plans of overseeing an elephant birthing could get a boost with the arrival of two of the newcomers. For several years, the zoo tried unsuccessfully to artificially inseminate Dolly, who has turned 30. But twentysomethings Kallie and Bette (Petal is 50) are in their prime child-rearing years. Worldwide, the population of elephants is declining. A pachyderm progeny, even if born in captivity, would be a good thing for the species.

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