Visitors to the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium in Omaha on Saturday scooched and sneaked by one another to get their first look at the elephants in the new African Grasslands exhibit.
The elephants remained inside their 29,000-square-foot barn — the wind and chill have kept them from exploring a 30,000-square-foot outdoor area complete with a wading pool. But chilly weather didn’t keep more than 7,000 people from visiting them.
As people took their turns looking at the elephants, phrases like “That’s crazy,” “I can’t see” and “There’s the baby elephant” could be heard.
Visitors lined the fence separating the five elephants (one, the only bull, was not on display because of an ankle injury). As soon as a spot opened up, newcomers would quickly fill it.
But the kids definitely had the advantage. Most either sat atop their parents’ shoulders or squeezed between people’s legs to a front-row spot.
One 2-year-old, Lorelei Wernau, was perched on her dad’s shoulders and shouted, “Hi, elephants!” as soon as she saw them.
Her dad, Joe Wernau, said his daughter loves animal movies, especially “Madagascar.” He said it was time for her to see them in person, even if that did mean skipping her nap time.
Two Northwest Missouri State students, Jeff Conley and Janette Goure, drove from Maryville to Omaha to spend time at the zoo before heading back to campus for a formal at Conley’s fraternity. Conley said he hasn’t visited the Omaha zoo since he was a kid, but Goure, who grew up in Omaha, said she tries to go every summer.
She said she remembers when there was only one elephant at the zoo.
“I’m glad to see all of these elephants together,” Goure said.
The elephants meandered about their open space throughout the day; the littlest elephant remained close to her mom for the most part.
A zoo spokeswoman said it’s a relief to finally have the elephants on display after all the work that has gone into preparing the exhibit.
She said people lined up outside the exhibit before the elephants’ debut on Wednesday, and nearly 9,000 people had visited them by Friday. She said the attendance is typical for this time of year, though lines at the exhibit are a sign that the new arrivals are a hit.
Rocio Williams saw the exhibit Saturday with her husband, Allan, and 11-month old son, Alexander. She said she can’t wait to see the elephants outside when the weather warms up.
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Meet the elephants
Although the zoo’s elephants don’t yet have names, they do have personalities, their keepers say.
The bull: He’s little now, at just 2,600 pounds, but he’s a big bull in the making. Keepers say the 6-to-10-year-old acts as if he’s 10,000 pounds. He’s off exhibit now with an ankle injury, but when he’s out roaming, he likes to tear up tree branches and interact with females at the gates.
The matriarch: At 6,000 pounds, she’s the largest female, and her calf is almost always by her side. She’s about 20 to 25 years old and can get pushy with the others. Keepers spotted her using her trunk to try to open doors on her own.
The calf: The littlest elephant weighs about 2,600 pounds and should be about 6 to 10 years old. She’s still coming out of her shell and hangs on mom’s hip. She gets along well with the bull, keepers say.
The pioneer: First out into public view, the second-largest female weighs about 5,000 pounds at about 10 years old. She’s shy and timid, keepers say, but she is attentive and likes interacting with people. She may be related, in some way, to the matriarch and the calf, keepers think.
The socialite: At 2,600 pounds, she’s another of the smaller elephants, but the 6- to-10-year-old gets along well with the other young elephants in the group. Spot her by looking for wrinkles on her forehead.
The future matriarch: One of the 6-to-10-year-old females likes to assert herself over the smaller elephants, keepers said. She weighs about 3,100 pounds and might be closely related to the socialite.
— Chris Peters
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From Africa to Omaha
Highlights of the six elephants’ journey to the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium:
October 2010: African elephant Maliaka dies, leaving her companion, Shenga, alone at the Omaha zoo.
March 2011: Shenga departs Omaha for the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo after officials determine that she should live with other elephants.
February 2014: Omaha zoo CEO Dennis Pate travels to Swaziland, observes elephants and strikes a deal with Big Game Parks wildlife reserve to import them.
April 2014: The zoo announces it will reintroduce elephants and zebras at the future African Grasslands exhibit.
September 2015: The zoo says up to 18 African elephants will be imported from Swaziland as part of a deal with partner zoos in Dallas and Wichita. Six will come to Omaha.
November 2015: The Animal Legal Defense Fund, on behalf of several animal rights organizations, seeks to delay the elephant import by requesting an extension of the public comment period from U.S. Fish and Wildlife. The wildlife service denies the request.
Feb. 9, 2016: Friends of Animals, an animal rights group, files a lawsuit against U.S. Fish and Wildlife, asking a federal court to suspend the service’s import permit.
March 8: After Omaha and the partner zoos send an airplane to Swaziland, sedate the elephants and load them for transport, Friends of Animals seeks an emergency restraining order to block the import. A judge rules to allow the transport.
March 10: Omaha and the partner zoos announce that one of the 18 elephants died in December. Dallas, which already had four elephants, will now receive five; Omaha and Wichita are still receiving six.
March 11: Elephants arrive at Eppley Airfield after a three-day journey. Trucks take them to the Omaha zoo, where the animals spend time in quarantine and acclimate to their new environment before going on display.
March 31: A U.S. Department of Agriculture veterinarian clears the elephants in a final examination.
April 6: The elephants make their public debut.
— Blake Ursch