Elephant road trip, without potty stops, ends in D.C.: Trek from Calgary covered 2,400 miles

Three female Asian elephants from Calgary, Canada - Kamala, 39, Swarna, 39, and Maharani, 23 - arrived at the Smithsonian National Zoo on Friday. (Michael Ruane and Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

It was going to be a long trip, so the zookeepers packed well: 24 bales of hay, 200 pounds of grain and 10 bags of wood shavings, because there would be no restroom stops.

They also brought a case of cantaloupes, a case of watermelons and 130 gallons of water. Oh, and two popcorn blowers as keepsakes.

At the start of the Memorial Day weekend, the Smithsonian National Zoo’s 60-hour, 2,400-mile elephant road trip ended in Washington on Friday morning after touching two countries, nine states and three time zones.

The convoy, which included the zoo’s three new Asian elephants on two flatbed tractor-trailers, plus two RVs for staff, rolled down Connecticut Avenue and into the zoo compound at 10:55 a.m.

It had left the zoo in Calgary, Alberta, on Tuesday afternoon.

The journey was kept somewhat secret for security reasons, the National Zoo said, and a large part of the zoo was closed off Friday as the elephants were unloaded.

“Unloading elephants is logistically very challenging and demanding,” said Pamela Baker-Masson, the zoo’s spokeswoman.

Indeed, the job was not completed until about 4:30 p.m. The zoo said the elephants can now be spotted on the new stationary elephant cam, if they wander into its focus.

The arrival of the elephants is the latest step in the National Zoo’s push to become a state-of-the-art center for Asian elephant research and home to a large herd of the endangered animals.

“It’s in­cred­ibly exciting,” said Baker-Masson. “We’ve planned, we worked on this for many, many, many months. Even beyond that, prior to that, the vision was to have a very large herd at the Smithsonian National Zoo.”

The elephants, which weigh a total of 22,500 pounds, traveled in three containers that the National Zoo shipped to Calgary last year to familiarize the animals with them.

The RVs carried keepers, curators, veterinarians and the National Zoo’s registrar, Laura Morse, to handle border-crossing paperwork.

“You get a whole bunch of elephant people together in any room, and it’s a good time,” Brandie Smith, a senior curator who organized the Washington logistics, said at the zoo last week.

There were periodic halts at truck stops, but no overnight stays, zoo officials said.

And the elephants were not allowed out of their containers. The wood shavings were designed to absorb waste.

The move was handled by a transportation company that specializes in moving elephants, Smith said.

Some of the elephants’ favorite toys were brought along from Calgary, including a 300-pound ball and the popcorn blowers that were used to spray popcorn, which the elephants like to munch.

The zoo announced in August that it was getting the three elephants, boosting the size of its herd from four to seven and providing a laboratory for the study of elephant life and society.

The three females from Calgary arrived a year after Bozie, another female, was shipped to Washington from the zoo in Baton Rouge last May.

The Calgary Zoo announced in 2012 that it was closing its elephant exhibit because of its cold climate, its inability to expand and its desire to give its elephants the benefits of living in larger herds.

It chose the National Zoo as their new home.

The newest arrivals are Kamala, 39, Swarna, 39, and Maharani, 23, Kamala’s daughter.

On Tuesday in Calgary, they were coaxed into their containers, which then were lifted onto the trucks by a construction crane. Kamala and Maharani were placed on one truck, Swarna on the other. Police escorted the convoy out of town.

In Washington, the process was reversed. A crane lifted the containers from the trucks and placed them at the entrance to the zoo’s new elephant barn, where the newcomers will be quarantined in a special area for 30 days.

“They’re beautiful, absolutely beautiful,” Smith said of them.

The Canadians joined the National Zoo’s other females, Bozie, 38, Ambika, 66 — the second-oldest Asian elephant in the country — and Shanthi, 39. The zoo also has a male, Kandula, 12.

The zoo hopes the females can be kept together. The male is kept separately.

“Ideally, we’ll have a single kind of matriarchal herd,” Smith said.

“They’ll get to know each other, and they’ll establish a dominance hierarchy,” she said. “But it might not happen. . . . Maybe it will be two separate groups. Ultimately, we’re going to let them tell us what they want to do.”

Several keepers from the Calgary Zoo made the convoy trip and will stay in Washington to ease the new elephants’ transition.

David Rubenstein, the local philanthropist who has been a major National Zoo benefactor and recently helped pay for the Washington Monument earthquake repair, provided $2 million for the transfer, officials said.

In March 2013, the zoo opened a new elephant community center, which resembles a sunny, indoor elephant sandbox.

It was the second phase of the zoo’s $56 million Elephant Trails exhibit.

The first part, which included a 5,700-square-foot barn, two new yards, a pool and a quarter-mile walkway through woods, opened in 2010.

Maharani is of breeding age. In 2012, she delivered a stillborn, premature calf. She has had two other pregnancies, but neither of the calves survived. The zoo plans to breed her, but not with its male because they are distantly related.

Kamala, the Calgary group’s matriarch, was born in 1975 in Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park. Orphaned at 6 months, she was found at the bottom of an abandoned well by park employees. Her name is Hindi for Lotus Flower. She was brought from the Pinnawala elephant orphanage in central Sri Lanka to Calgary in 1976.

Maharani was born in Calgary in 1990.

Swarna also came to the Calgary Zoo in 1976 from the Pinnawala orphanage.

Bozie, Shanthi, Swarna and Kamala were all once in the Pinnawala orphanage together, but zoo officials have said they did not know whether the animals would remember one another.

Michael covers monuments, memorials, institutions; lore, ghosts, people of Capital, topics historical, martial, medical.
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