They were like the new kids in the recess yard.
Two thought it was great and frolicked, as much as elephants can, flapping their ears, eating grass and throwing dirt.
The third wasn’t sure and retreated to a more familiar area, trumpeting for the others to join her.
There was a lot of noise Monday as the Smithsonian National Zoological Park’s three new Asian elephants made their outdoor public debut at the zoo’s Elephant Trails complex after a 30-day quarantine.
The three — Kamala, 39, Swarna, 39, and Maharani, 23 — emerged from an inner paddock at 9:32 a.m. as its metal gate slid open and elephant manager Marie Galloway called out to them.
“Swarna! Rani!” she yelled, summoning them into a large open habitat area. “Come on out!”
Maharani, the tallest of the group and its rookie leader, led the way, pausing at the gate, while the older animals hurried past.
All three then quickly explored the area, munching grass and hay and busily checking into corners. Then Maharani retreated.
Crowds watched from a distance, and keepers gathered along a fence inside the habitat to take pictures. The zoo’s resident male, Kandula, 12, who knew what was up, could be heard in the background bellowing like a foghorn.
The trio of new females had been in health quarantine since they arrived May 23 after a 2,400-mile road trip from the zoo in Calgary, Alberta.
The Canadian zoo had decided to close its elephant exhibit and selected the National Zoo’s $56 million elephant complex as the animals’ new home.
The National Zoo, in turn, has been looking to increase the size of its herd as part of its focus on Asian elephants.
“I’d say it’s pretty exciting,” said Becky Dhyse, 67, of Arnold, Md., as she and her husband, Paul Dhyse, 69, waited for the elephants to emerge. “Three at once? That’s a big deal.”
Paul Dhyse said: “It’s a huge project for the zoo to undertake. Most zoos don’ t have the space for this kind of program. . . . It’s a learning curve that is starting here for this area to realize that [an elephant is] a beautiful animal, and they are something that we should treasure and not kill.”
In March 2013, the zoo opened an elephant community center, which resembles a sunny, indoor elephant sandbox.
It was the second phase of the Elephant Trails complex. The first part, which includes a 5,700-square-foot barn, two new yards, a pool and a quarter-mile walkway through woods, opened in 2010.
Last year, the zoo acquired Bozie, 38, from a zoo in Baton Rouge to add to its existing herd of Ambika, 66, Shanthi, 39, and Kandula. All the elephants are female except for Kandula, who is kept separate from the others.
The Canadian newcomers, whose combined weight is 22,500 pounds, have not been allowed to mingle with the established residents. The two groups were not in physical contact Monday, though they could see each other.
Introductions are a delicate and gradual process. Later this week, the females may get to meet at a “howdy gate,” which allows touching and greeting through bars, curator Tony Barthel said.
He said keepers will observe which elephants get along, and then perhaps arrange one-on-one meetings.
Eventually, the zoo hopes to house the females as a single herd.
Keepers said the dynamic among the new elephants Monday was fascinating.
“I was surprised to see that two of the three stayed outside, while the one who is sort of in charge . . . was calling for them,” said Colleen Baird, an elephant expert from the Calgary zoo who is in town to ease the animals’ transition.
Maharani, Kamala’s daughter, “was sort of making some noise,” Baird said. The elephant could be heard trumpeting loudly. “She was wanting them to come back in. She likes to take things a lot slower than the other two.”
“The other two . . . are older,” Baird said. “They’re wiser. They’ve been through it. They’re 39 years old. Rani’s [almost] 24. She’s new to being a leader. She’s new to being a leader of this group. She wants to take things slower. So she was making some sounds.”
Baird said the Canadian elephants should quickly adapt to Washington’s summer. Their compound has shade and water.
“They might slow down a little bit with the heat,” she said. “I don’t think it will take them much more than this summer to adjust, and be even better off for next year.”
“It’s nice that they won’t have to endure another Calgary winter,” she said.