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Photos: Denver Zoo's $50M Toyota Elephant Passage opens today

This is it, zoo fans. This is what you've been waiting for and dreaming of since you approved that $62.5 million zoo-improvement bond in 1999. Big, hulking male elephants -- up to eight of 'em -- living in City Park. Big, hulking male elephants and their big, hulking...trunks.

Today is the day that the Denver Zoo's $50 million Toyota Elephant Passage exhibit opens to the public.

"It's pretty magnificent how this site has been transformed," zoo CEO Craig Piper said this morning to a crowd that included city council members and kids who'd raised money for the elephants. The site is ten acres on the zoo's southern edge, which is much, much bigger than the old elephant habitat. Toyota Elephant Passage -- which was called Asian Tropics before seven local Toyota dealerships donated $5.4 million -- will also be home to several other species, including rhinos and tapirs.

"We want people to fall in love with elephants, rhinos and tapirs every day," Piper said, standing in front of a shiny red ribbon stretched across the exhibit's entrance. "If we touch the heart first, the mind will follow."

Bodhi the elephant smiles for the crowd.
Bodhi the elephant smiles for the crowd.
Melanie Asmar

Click through to continue reading and see more photos.   Piper was referring to the fact that Asian elephants are endangered. It's estimated that there are between 30,000 and 50,000 Asian elephants left in the wild, in countries such as Thailand, Sri Lanka and India. About 300 Asian elephants live in North America, either in zoos or on private lands. But very few of them are male, partly because male elephants are bigger, stronger and harder to house. Plus, there's the problem of musth, a period in which male elephants experience elevated hormone levels, heightened sexual interest and aggressive activity. In the wild, their penises protrude and, perhaps because of continuous urination, grow algae -- a condition known as "green weenie."

However, if you want to breed elephants to help ward off endangerment, you need both boys and girls -- and the Denver Zoo decided to build a home for bull elephants. The new exhibit can house twelve elephants altogether, up to eight of which could be male.

Right now, the zoo has four elephants. Mimi and Dolly, the zoo's two post-reproductive female elephants, have lived in Denver for years. Bodhi, a seven-year-old male, came to the zoo in late 2011. Groucho, who's 41, arrived in January.

Bodhi walks across Peter and Ella's Crossing as Craig Piper speaks.
Bodhi walks across Peter and Ella's Crossing as Craig Piper speaks.
Melanie Asmar

One of the exhibit's coolest features is a railroad-style bridge near the entrance that serves as a walkway so the elephants can move from one part of the exhibit to the other. This morning, Bodhi ambled across it as the crowd ooh-ed and aah-ed. "Bodhi was our first elephant who decided, 'I'll cross that bridge,'" Piper says.

The exhibit will be open every day that the zoo is open, starting today. However, because the zoo expects an influx of visitors to Toyota Elephant Passage, timed entry reservations are required. You can make a reservation online.

Click through to see photos of the inside of the exhibit.  

Bodhi the elephant takes a dust bath.
Bodhi the elephant takes a dust bath.
Melanie Asmar
The indoor elephant parlor at Toyota Elephant Passage.
The indoor elephant parlor at Toyota Elephant Passage.
Melanie Asmar
A crane uh, cranes in the Toyota Elephant Passage exhibit.
A crane uh, cranes in the Toyota Elephant Passage exhibit.
Melanie Asmar
Education! Learning! And a shadow.
Education! Learning! And a shadow.
Melanie Asmar
Toyota Elephant Passage is full of artifacts....
Toyota Elephant Passage is full of artifacts....
Melanie Asmar
..and Toyota logos.
..and Toyota logos.
Melanie Asmar
The animals can move from yard to yard through a series of crossings.
The animals can move from yard to yard through a series of crossings.
Melanie Asmar
Where the wild things are.
Where the wild things are.
Melanie Asmar

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