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

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To Piper's knowledge, Cookie, Candy, Mimi and Dolly are the only elephants who have ever lived at the Denver Zoo long-term.

But unlike the impact of Cookie's arrival in Denver, Piper isn't banking on Asian Tropics to hugely increase zoo revenues or membership. "I would love to think we'll have more people come visit the zoo, but that's not the driving force behind it," he says. "The driving force is to help elephants. And certainly, the more people who come visit does help that cause, [because] it allows us to put more dollars in the coffers of our field conservation programs."

The zoo has several such programs, including some that help native Asians co-exist with the elephants that sometimes raid their crops.

Still, Pond adds that Denverites should be proud to have such a rare and groundbreaking exhibit in their city: "Our 1.9 million guests are going to get the best elephant exhibit in the world as the result of this master plan."

Asian Tropics will be built within the zoo's existing footprint, on a boomerang-shaped piece of land on the zoo's southern edge — sandwiched between Bird World and the existing yak exhibit. The site stretches over ten of the zoo's eighty acres.

Today the area houses hoofed animals, such as white-lipped deer and oxen, as well as mountain lions and Pallas's cats, a type of wild Asian feline that looks like a stocky housecat. Most of the animals currently on the site will be moved to other locations in the zoo once the exhibit opens, Piper says.

However, a few species, such as the bison that now occupy a space in the eastern part of the ten acres, will leave permanently. They could be relocated to another zoo or used to start a new wild herd in Colorado. The zoo will also lose its ankole cattle, African cattle that resemble Texas longhorns. According to Piper, they were loaned to the zoo with the expectation that they would be returned once the new exhibit is built.

Asian Tropics will be home to three main species: the elephants, Malayan tapirs and Indian rhinos. The rhinos are even more endangered than the elephants; there are fewer than 3,000 left in the wild. But crowd-pleasing elephants will be the centerpiece.

The zoo will build an 18,000-square-foot elephant barn in the middle of the exhibit, complete with eight elephant stalls. There will be a big communal space in the center, dubbed "the parlor." Visitors will be able to see into the parlor, which could be occupied at any time by any combination of compatible elephants, just hanging out.

The barn will be built stronger and the stalls tougher to accommodate the taller, heavier male elephants, zoo officials say. The staff won't have direct physical contact with the bulls — a management technique proven to work with male elephants, in addition to other safety measures. "The facility is designed very carefully to keep the animals where they belong and the staff where they belong," Piper says.

He points out that animals who do stray from their area will often realize they are in unfamiliar surroundings and head back to their habitat on their own. And there's an emergency plan in place — as there are with all of the animals — in case an elephant stampedes.

Asian Tropics will have five outdoor habitats. The three main species will rotate between them, while the exhibit's smaller animals — including fishing cats, leopards and otters — will stay put. On any given day, Mimi and Dolly could be in one habitat while a group of rowdy teenage boy elephants could be in another, within sniffing distance of some rhinos but separated by metal cables, a deep moat or a tall building.

Moving the animals from habitat to habitat ensures they won't get bored, Pond says, and allows visitors to be surprised. "It's not the rhino yard or the elephant yard," he says. "It's the I-don't-know-what-you're-going-to-get-today, surprise-me yard."

But even with plans for an intricate animal transfer system — including numerous walkways and gates, a public railroad-crossing-type path and an elevated elephant bridge — it can be tricky to make a male elephant budge, especially a male elephant in musth.

A bull in musth is like that drunk guy at the bar, says elephant behavioral researcher Bruce Schulte of Georgia Southern University. He might not be the sharpest guy in the room or the biggest or the strongest, but after a half-dozen beers, nobody wants to find out. "He's sending signals to the males like, 'Hey, you might want to leave me alone,'" Schulte says. At the same time, "he's sending signals to the females: 'Hey, I'm the right guy. I've got the Corvette. I've got the best aftershave. Come date me.'"

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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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