© 2024 KMUW
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Construction Starts On New Elephant Exhibit

Deborah Shaar

Construction is underway on the new elephant exhibit at the Sedgwick County Zoo. Having a herd of more than two elephants is now required or zoos risk losing accreditation. As KMUW’s Deborah Shaar reports, zoo leaders say this new exhibit will not only be good for the elephants, it will also be good for the local economy.

Backhoes, dozers and dump trucks are working on a five acre area on the south side of the zoo. This unused land will be transformed into a $10.6 million “elephant management complex.”

“The dirt work has started now. The elephant building construction will start this December or January. We hope to have 90-percent of the stuff done by this July 2015 and we’ll open the exhibit to the public on Memorial Day 2016,” says Mark Reed, the zoo's executive director.

Click to enlarge

He says the exhibit will be named “Elephants of the Zambezi River Valley,”after an African area he visited back in 1997. It will be the third largest elephant exhibit in the United States.

Credit Deborah Shaar
Zoo director, Mark Reed, says the new exhibit will be named after an area he visited in Africa

The new exhibit will not only be a new home for the zoo’s two current elephants--Stephanie and Cinda--it’ll also be home to four or five new pachyderms which will be brought in. Senior Zookeeper Mike Forbes says they hope to add even more elephants thru breeding.

“We need to be able to breed more elephants in zoo situations so we have a sustainable population for our children, our grandchildren and futures and beyond to enjoy and learn about," says Forbes. "And we’re excited to be part of that.”

Credit Melissa Graham, Sedgwick County Zoo
Mike Forbes, senior zoo keeper at the Sedgwick County Zoo, with Stephanie, one of the zoo's elephants

Forbes has been working with the elephants for more than 20 years. He and the six other keepers have a personal connection to Stephanie and Cinda, because they get to do a lot of one-on-one training.

Trainer Jody Sentel is working with Stephanie, doing physical exercises for her body and enrichment activities for her mind. There are four training sessions a day, two are during zoo hours when visitors can watch and ask questions.

Credit Deborah Shaar
Elephants at the Sedgwick County Zoo demonstrate their painting skills to visiting children

“Are they easy to train?”

“Why are they hairy?”

“On a day to day basis our responsibility is caring for the animals, but at the same time we’re also all educators and we want to get our message out there and get people excited about the species that we care for and get them excited as we are about them,” says Forbes.

Forbes and his team have plenty to be excited about these days. The new elephant exhibit will have several innovative features that’ll make the Sedgwick County Zoo a world-class facility. Within the five acre site, there will be two viewing yards, two off-exhibit yards, an amphitheater and an 18-thousand square foot barn.

“This new elephant barn and the exhibit itself is really going to be built for easier care of the elephants," Forbes says. "The equipment that we’ll have, the way the barn is set up, we’ll be able to manage elephants in a completely different way that will be challenging and exciting.”

Credit Deborah Shaar
Canal to be used as part of the new elephant exhibit at the Sedgwick County Zoo

The exhibit will also include a new concept that has never been done in the world… a pontoon boat ride in the same water canal that the elephants use. Just to be safe…there will be an underwater barrier to keep the elephants away from boats. Zoo Director Mark Reed says the boat ride and an island in the exhibit they’re calling the “gathering place” are cutting edge. “You are actually in the middle of this exhibit and you can have elephants in front of you, beside you and behind you,” says Reed.

A new elephant exhibit was in the zoo’s master plan in 1997, but got pushed to the back burner over years as other animal exhibits took off. Last month, the project finally came together financially… the cost would be split between private donations and the county. Reed says it all adds up to one good investment because about half of all the people who visit the zoo each year come from outside Sedgwick County.

“They’re driving here. They are buying gas here. They’re going to the zoo. They’re going shopping afterwards. We are an economic engine for the county, for this community. We do bring in a lot of money,” says Reed.

For the next month…trucks will continue moving dirt, taking down trees and leveling the surface for the big things to come.

For more information about Stephanie and Cinda, click here. And for more information on the E is for Elephants and So Am I public fundraising campaign, click here.

Deborah joined the news team at KMUW in September 2014 as a news reporter. She spent more than a dozen years working in news at both public and commercial radio and television stations in Ohio, West Virginia and Detroit, Michigan. Before relocating to Wichita in 2013, Deborah taught news and broadcasting classes at Tarrant County College in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas area.