The elephants at theNational Zoo have a new hangout. The old Elephant House has been renovated to include a lot more space for the giant animals to play, rest and even take a shower. It has been renamed the Elephant Community Center, and it also offers a lot more for human guests.
“It’s a great place for elephants to socialize,” said Marie Galloway, who is the elephant manager at the zoo. “And to just plain hang out.”
The community center, which opened Saturday, is the final piece of the redesigned Elephant Trails exhibition. It is designed to hold as many as 10 elephants, zoo officials said. Although the zoo plans to increase the herd, there are now just three residents: Ambika, Shanthi and Kandula.
Galloway said each animal reacted differently to the new space. Shanthi, a 38-year-old female, walked right in and “explored every nook and cranny,” Galloway said. Ambika, a 65-year-old female, was very cautious the first day, not sure if the new space was safe.
And Kandula, Shanthi’s 11-year-old son, had a funny way of dealing with the unknown. “He backed his way in,” Galloway said with a laugh.
All three have roamed on the heated floor. That new floor, covered with four feet of sand, is a big change from the old concrete. The surface is intended not just to help cushion the feet of the elephants, the heaviest of which weighs 9,000 pounds.
“The elephants are already enjoying it by throwing sand on one another,” said Susan Ades, director of exhibits.
The community center also has two water features: a heated pool and a shower. As of last week, the elephants had not figured out how to start the shower by pressing a foot plate.
The elephants also have a new scratching post with hanging toys and a tree that bends when the elephants push on it. Kandula has already managed to knock it down.
People also have a lot more to do than in the old building, which had few opportunities to learn about the endangered species from Asia.
The new space has a huge elephant cutout on the wall with fun facts on hidden panels. Visitors can take a quiz about how much elephants eat, drink and poop. Huge, clear tubes nearby are filled with elephant food — bamboo, hay, fruit — and with dung balls, the scientific term for elephant poop.
There’s also a display featuring one of Kandula’s old toys: a 750-pound tire. Visitors can watch a video of him playing and then press a metal plate to see how much weight they can push around. (You’ll be able to push much less than 750 pounds!)
There are several other hands-on activities, including a machine that compares elephant sounds and human voices. You also can make a pledge to save the elephants.
That last part — conservation — is the message zoo officials hope visitors will take away from the exhibition.
“We’re hoping people will come to . . . and become educated,” Galloway said. “And take action to protect elephants.”