With the sun rising over Omaha on Wednesday morning, what looked like a motorcade came rolling down Ninth Street toward the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium.
Two black vans escorted a truck carrying a large gray prism of a crate to the zoo’s back gate about 9 a.m. Inside the crate was Omaha’s newest resident — Callee, a bull African elephant.
Callee’s arrival brings the number of African elephants at the zoo to seven. It also gives the zoo a male who could breed with the five female elephants — the herd’s other male, Louie, hasn’t been “up to the task” of breeding, Zoo Director Dennis Pate said.
Callee’s trip was a long one. He and the keepers from both his former home, the Birmingham Zoo in Alabama, and Omaha hit the road at 1 p.m. Tuesday. Pate said the drive from Alabama is 14 hours nonstop. But between stopping for breaks and running into closed sections of Interstate 29, Callee’s trip took about 20 hours.
The crate Callee was transported in was made specifically for elephant transport. Pate said the crate, which cost about $40,000, includes five security bars on its front and back sides, as well as foot straps to hold an elephant in place.
“Anytime you move something this big and this powerful, it’s always exciting for us,” Pate said.
Those riding in the escort vans had fruit and water for Callee at each stop. At the zoo, keepers were spotted throwing sliced fruit into his crate and were on standby with buckets of uncut cantaloupes and watermelons.
“It’s a lot of logistics to moving an elephant, both at the loading end and the receiving end,” Pate said. “This went pretty darn smoothly.”
Pate said the Birmingham zookeepers who came along helped reassure Callee at stops during the trip. They’re expected to stay in Omaha for a few days to help with his adjustment to a new facility.
“Over the next couple of days, there’s going to be a transition with their staff and our staff,” Pate said. “So he just gets used to the routine and which doors to walk through, to open.”
With that, Pate said it likely will be a few days before Callee meets the other elephants. Callee comes to Omaha as part of an initiative undertaken in 2016 that brought six elephants to the zoo in an effort to breed the species domestically.
“The entire point of this exercise wasn’t just for public viewing, although that’s important, but it’s to help increase the sustainability of elephants in North America,” Pate said.
“Lou can be a little bit of a bully,” the zoo director said. “He doesn’t really get the whole reproduction thing. He thinks it’s a game of chase and corner.”
Callee is about 3½ years older than Louie and about 1,000 pounds heavier. As well as having the potential to be the stronger, more assertive male — something Pate said is crucial to most reproduction in wild elephants — Callee also has observed elephant mating behaviors.
“He knows what it’s like to be in social circles,” Pate said. “So that gives us some hope that he’ll get along with our cows and they will allow him to breed them.
“There’s only four proven breeding African elephants in the U.S., but we did a semen check, a reproductive exam with him,” Pate said. “Everything is in order as far as that goes, and so we’re pretty optimistic.”
For now, Callee is set to rest for a couple of days. The zoo moved the rest of the herd to its open-air facility for the day to give Callee some space and let him get caught up on his sleep.
Even though there will be some acclimating to do, Pate made clear several times Wednesday just how optimistic the zoo is about Callee’s breeding potential: “We think this is the best bull we could’ve gotten for our girls right now.”