Caution: A herd of bull elephants is coming to the Denver Zoo

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The Denver Zoo had already been planning to rebuild its elephant exhibit as part of its twenty-year master plan, and the meeting heavily influenced the organization. While other zoos weren't ready "to make that step" toward housing bulls, Piper says, "our team was."

"Ultimately, male elephants take an entirely different construction technology and exhibitory technology to keep in the long term, when they start to mature and get larger and come into sexual maturity and hormonal maturity," says George Pond, the zoo's vice president for planning and capital projects. "There's not a lot of homes for them."

And not enough homes could cause the entire North American baby-elephant machine to grind to a halt. "There are...colleagues of ours who have had to make the decision to stop breeding, which is pretty significant," Pond says. "We discovered that we can bring something — not only to Denver, but to the entire industry — that is needed."

Building a facility capable of housing some of the world's biggest animals isn't cheap. With an estimated cost of $50 million, Asian Tropics will be the zoo's most expensive master-plan project to date.

Half of the money will come from a $62.5 million zoo-improvement bond issue approved by Denver voters in 1999. The first $36 million of that bond has already been spent on projects such as a 764-space parking garage, a komodo dragon exhibit and Predator Ridge, an exhibit that houses lions, hyenas and wild dogs in rotating habitats, a model zoo officials plan to replicate in Asian Tropics.

The other half of the $50 million is supposed to come from private donations, but the zoo has had trouble raising the money because of the faltering economy. As of April, it was still $10 million short, says zoo spokeswoman Tiffany Barnhart.

With the bond set to expire in November, the zoo asked the Denver City Council in May to amend the agreement that required the zoo to raise $25 million in order to receive the bond money. Instead, the zoo asked to be given the $25 million in bond money now, with a promise that it would raise the matching funds by 2013. The council agreed.

"It's just this last bit of money they need to match, and if they don't, they lose it," says Councilwoman Carla Madison, whose district includes the zoo. "I think the zoo has fundraising capacity enough to match the money."

Zoo officials think so, too. "We know it will help our fundraising efforts to not only be able to share drawings with people, but to bring them out onto the site and let them see the work that's going on," Piper says.

Beyond building costs, it costs about $73,000 a year just to feed and care for each elephant, Barnhart says. That estimate includes the cost of food and staff but not the cost of veterinary services, which varies depending on an animal's health. The money to care for the elephants will come out of the zoo's operating budget, which was $22.8 million last year. The zoo is funded by a mix of public and private money.

The Denver Zoo began with one bear. It came to the Mile High City in 1896 via the Wells-Fargo Express Company, addressed to one Mr. Bailey. It was apparently sent by a buddy of his who believed that Bailey, an avid hunter, would enjoy adding a live black bear to his collection. Alas, he did not, as the sub-headline of a story from the November 6, 1896, edition of the Denver Evening Post reveals: "It Arrived at the Wells-Fargo Office Yesterday and Created Bedlam — Then It Was Taken to Mr. Bailey's House, and Mrs. Bailey Fled for Her Life — It Is Now Perched on a Back Fence."

The bear, called Billy Bryan, was donated to the city and housed in a spot in City Park. Thus, the Denver Zoo was born.

For the next 50 years, the zoo grew somewhat haphazardly, according to The Denver Zoo: A Centennial History, written for the zoo's 100th birthday, in 1996. Native species like buffalo and mountain lions and non-native species such as monkeys were added piecemeal to the collection. Visitors could drive or bicycle right up to their cages.

But by 1946, the zoo had fallen into disrepair. One popular Rocky Mountain News columnist called it "third rate" and urged city leaders to do something about it. Over the next few years, they did. In 1950, the Denver Zoological Foundation was formed. That same year, the zoo got its first elephant: a female named Cookie.

"The acquisition of Cookie was the first significant effort to involve the entire Denver community in the zoo's future, to get Denver citizens to make a direct financial contribution and an emotional commitment to the zoo," wrote Carolyn and Don Etter in The Denver Zoo. Indeed, Cookie debuted to record crowds. In 1959, the zoo added a second elephant named Candy and built the pair a new exhibit, dubbed the Pachyderm Habitat. Though remodeled, it's the same exhibit that stands today and is home to the zoo's two older, post-reproductive female elephants, Mimi and Dolly.

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar

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