The morning wind was biting. Too cold for elephants.
But for 7-year-old Charlotte Vander Zwaag? Peanuts.
Charlotte is a little young to remember when the zoo last had an elephant five years ago. But when she heard the zoo’s new herd would go on display Wednesday morning, she couldn’t wait to see them.
“I was really, really happy,” she said.
So her mother Roberta — she’s also Charlotte’s homeschool teacher — took her to the zoo right as it opened at 10 a.m. They stood near the front of a 100-person line that stretched up a steep hill.
The elephants were supposed to come outside to a 30,000-square-foot yard with a wading pool. But the cold and the wind kept them inside their 29,000-square-foot barn, where they’ve lived in government-mandated quarantine since arriving from Africa on March 11.
“We were afraid we’d open the door, they would put their trunk outside and say ‘We’re not going out there just yet,’ and they would come right back in,” said Dennis Pate, CEO and executive director of the zoo. “We were anxious to get people in to see the elephants, so we just decided to do it inside today.”
Pate called Wednesday the “second happiest” day he has had in a while, following the day the elephants’ plane touched down safely in Omaha.
“It’s a goosebumps day for me,” he said.
At 11:05 a.m., the line hadn’t budged. Zoo officials, keepers and media watched as the first trunk came into view. A female, estimated to be about 10 years old, strode out of a stall, down a corridor and on to four feet of sand. She turned, meandered around an area enclosed by metal columns, then exited and made her way for a feeding station on a nearby wall.
One by one, the elephants were led out. They walked along the exhibit, past mounds of sand they use for pillows, moving from one station to the other to munch on trees, hay, apples and fiber biscuits, interacting with keepers and built-in feeding stations to earn their grub.
The final pair to make their debut were a mother and daughter — the largest and smallest elephants in Omaha’s herd. The mother was last because she is the dominant one among the females, Pate said.
“She is not beyond pushing them out of the way, smacking (them) with her trunk because she wants first crack at the groceries here,” Pate said. “So they’re all aware of where she is, but with a room this size, it allows them to be a little separate from her and not have to worry about where she is.”
When the doors opened and the Vander Zwaags rushed to the railing about 10 to 15 feet from the elephants, five pachyderms were on display. The sixth is the zoo’s only male. He’ll stay off exhibit for about a month, Pate said, because he has an ankle injury with an unknown cause.
“We’re very confident he’s going to be fine,” Pate said. “He’s eating. He’s very feisty. He thinks he’s a real tough guy. He’s just all boy, this guy. So it’s a challenge just keeping him quiet just so he can rest.”
Zoo staff manned the entrance to the building, ensuring it didn’t overcrowd. When people left — one of the earliest to leave was a crying toddler with a stuffed elephant — they ushered more in.
Within about 90 minutes, the line ended. The final person was a man wearing a brimmed hat and a Belgium pin on his shirt. No floppy elephant hats, like some of the children before him.
But more than most of the people there, he has a real connection to the animals he saw before him: His wife.
The man, Adrian Petrescu (pronounced “pet rescue”), was born in Romania. His wife, Marie Hélène André, was born in Rwanda. It was there, as a child, that she saw her first elephants, a trio, while camping. They left an impression.
“Seeing the elephants in the wild, in the park, it’s completely different,” she said. “It’s like seeing the bears or the bison in complete wilderness.”
When the couple moved to Omaha five years ago, she hated the idea of zoos, until she visited Omaha’s.
“I must say that zoos have evolved so much in the past 30 years,” she said. “Now you see they have quite some room. I remember that the Belgian room had very, very little cages for these elephants. Now (in Omaha), they have room.”
André has followed the elephants’ journey since the zoo announced import plans in September. She and her husband watched their plane arrive at Eppley Airfield. And when she read in the newspaper that they would go on display Wednesday, she and Petrescu made lunch plans.
Every step along the elephants’ journey to Omaha, there was a mix of support and opposition. When permits were approved in January, one animal rights group sued. The suit was dropped Tuesday.
Detractors called the move of 17 animals — some to Dallas and Wichita — a purchase (zoos said any money given was for black rhino conservation), said it wasn’t done by the book and insisted that elephants should not be split up or housed in zoos.
One point of contention were the elephants’ tusks. Photos after their arrival showed they were shaved down, and people wondered why. Wednesday, Pate explained:
“There was concern expressed by the veterinarians in Swaziland that when they were in the crates, if the tusks were too long, they could put them in between the gaps in the side of the crate and snap them off and expose the pulp cavity which could mean an infection. So, rather than risk that, they just cut the ends off. They’ll continue to grow out.”
He also addressed the animals’ physique. At first, zoo officials thought the elephants looked skinny.
“When we first started to look at body type and compare it to wild elephants, what we realized is that they look about right,” Pate said. “If anybody is a little on the thin side, it would the largest female, but some of the little ones look pretty good.”
Donors and keepers will name the animals, though they haven’t yet.
The elephants choose where to sleep — in private stalls or in a big family room. They come from two separate social groups, and they’re still blending into one.
While the elephants warm up to each other and their 30,000-square-foot outdoor exhibit, construction crews will wrap up a 3.3-acre outdoor habitat they’ll share with plains zebras, bachelor impalas and helmeted guinea fowl. The elephant exhibit totals five acres.
The exhibit, along with the rest of the African Grasslands, is schedule to open by Memorial Day weekend.
Temperature, wind and cloud cover will determine when the elephants will go outside for the first time. Regardless, Pate said he expects big crowds this weekend.
“Omahans turn out for their zoo,” he said, “and if you add elephants to the mix, I can’t even imagine what the weekend is going to be like.”
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Meet the elephants
Although the zoo’s elephants don’t yet have names, they do have personalities. Meet the elephants.
The bull: He’s little now, at just 2,600 pounds, but he’s a big bull in the making. Keepers say he 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 20-25 years old and can get pushy with the others. Keepers spotted her using her trunk to try and open doors on her own.
The calf: The littlest elephant weighs about 2,600 pounds and should be about 5 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 one of the smallest elephants, but the 5- 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 5- 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.
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From Africa to Omaha
The 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 will spend time in quarantine and have time to 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
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