But as the small motorcade, which included a chase car, weaved through the afternoon traffic with lights flashing, a long, mysterious object curled out the back window of the truck.
It was the trunk of an elephant.
But, by then, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo was only a mile or so away, and the trip was all but over for Washington’s new Asian elephant, Bozie, who arrived safely about 3:30 p.m after a top-secret, carefully planned journey from Louisiana.
The date and time of her departure and arrival had been closely guarded, zoo officials said, for fear of public intrusions.
“We don’t reveal our transportation plans in order to avoid unnecessary attention,” zoo spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson said, adding that animal safety was critical.
“We need to eliminate any possible interference, even if it’s a well-intentioned curious bystander,” she said.
There were some gawkers in Tennessee, who had spotted the elephant’s trunk sticking out the truck window Tuesday and cruised along taking pictures from their car. But apparently no word leaked out.
Bozie’s caravan had come from the Baton Rouge Zoo, where she lived for 16 years and where her companion elephant, Judy, died in March.
For the long ride to Washington, keepers brought along bales of Bozie’s favorite hay, as well as apples and bananas.
She was scared to enter the truck at first, so they let her go in backward. That way, she could stick her trunk out the rear widow to catch the breeze on the interstate.
And because she was moving so far away, a favorite keeper will stay with her until she gets settled.
The journey was a step into uncertainty for a 37-year-old with no bags to pack, an unfamiliar new zoo in which to live and three big-city elephants to get to know .
Plus, 28 hours was a long time for a 7,500-pound lady to be on her feet.
The trip began about noon Tuesday, Eastern time. The truck, operated by professional animal movers, and the chase van stopped for the night in Tennessee. The driver slept in the truck. The van occupants stayed at a motel.
Although elephants can nap standing up, Bozie was not allowed out of the truck to stretch her legs. Keepers soothed her with peppermints.
“All of this is carefully planned out, carefully orchestrated,” said Brandie Smith, the National Zoo’s senior curator.
Zoo officials had to determine: Would Bozie be flown here? Would she be driven? Should there be a chase car? If so, who should ride in it? What medicine should they bring with them? How would they get the truck into the National Zoo? What time? How would they get the elephant out of the truck?
“There is nothing that is happening that has not been planned down to the smallest detail,” Smith said.
Officials from the National Zoo and the Baton Rouge Zoo agreed that the move was the best thing for Bozie. It is not healthy for elephants to be alone, and in Washington, she will have an opportunity for romance.
The National Zoo has three Asian elephants, including a young male. There’s also a female about Bozie’s age.
It also has a roomy state-of-the-art elephant complex with an indoor rec center, a 5,700-square-foot barn and a quarter-mile walkway through woods. The zoo says it can accommodate up to a dozen elephants, and is working to build its herd.
The National Zoo announced May 3 that Bozie was moving to Washington. A farewell party was held for her Saturday in Baton Rouge, and a quiet leave-taking when she boarded the truck Tuesday.
“She was a little hesitant,” said Marie Galloway, the National Zoo’s elephant manager, who traveled to Baton Rouge to help with the transition. “She didn’t think it was necessarily a great idea to leave Baton Rouge.”
“We sweet-talked and babied . . . and she decided it would be a little more comfortable to go in [the truck] backward,” she said. “So we let her go in butt first. They often are more comfortable backing into a strange situation than they are going head first.”
Although the trip went well, there was one minor glitch: Bozie, whose nickname is “Bo,” had to be coaxed from the truck with pink and purple marshmallow Peeps.
New people, new animals
After Bozie arrived in Washington, she was to be placed in an area of the barn, separate from the other elephants.
There, she will be medically quarantined for 30 days, but have access to three stalls and an outdoor patio. She will not be on public view during her quarantine.
She can be seen, but not touched, by the other elephants — Ambika, 65, Shanthi, 38, and Kandula, 11, Shanthi’s male offspring. “They can smell her,” Smith said. “They can talk to her.”
“Some vocalizations are audible,” she said. “Some are almost more tactile. They communicate through something called infrasound. It’s below human hearing. . . . You can kind of hear it, but you almost feel it more than you hear it.”
“The next exciting part, after quarantine, is when we actually introduce the elephants to each other,” she said.
They will be separated only by bars, so they can touch one another. “That will tell us how we want to approach putting them together.”
The zoo said records show that Bozie and Shanthi briefly lived together as young calves in a Sri Lankan elephant orphanage before coming to the United States.
Most recently, however, Bozie had been with her late companion, Judy, in Baton Rouge.
“She could behave a little bit differently [here]. . . . And we kind of expect that,” Smith said. “It’s a new place — new people, new animals. So she might be a little more aggressive. If she’s fearful, she might express that in terms of aggression.”
Weeks ago, the zoo sent elephant manager Galloway to Baton Rouge to get to know Bozie. And they brought Bozie’s longtime Baton Rouge keeper Jenny Fortune on the trip, a move Smith said was like “having your mom walk you to school on the first day.”
The zoo plans to have a researcher study Bozie during Fortune’s stay to see how she does after the keeper leaves.
“No one has looked specifically at the human-animal relationship” in a case like this, Smith said. “One thing we’re looking at really is: Do her behaviors change when Jenny leaves?”
Once Bozie gets settled, she will undergo a reproductive assessment. She has had one offspring, and the zoo wants to find out whether she can have more. If she can, she probably would be paired with Kandula, Smith said.
Elephants can have offspring into their 40s.
Bozie was very attached to Judy, Fortune said. The keepers found Judy, 46, dead on April 18. Bozie was standing near the body.
“She knew what was going on,” Fortune said. She was somber at first, but bounced back within a few days.
Galloway, of the National Zoo, said of Bozie: “She’s a fabulous elephant. The entire community’s going to love her. I know the keepers are going to love her. . . .We are very, very excited.”