Denver isn't the only zoo building more space for bouncing baby boys. Several other big zoos — including those in Los Angeles, San Diego and Washington, D.C. — are expanding their elephant exhibits, despite some outcry from animal-rights groups and other people who insist that no zoo is large enough to handle the world's biggest land mammals. Like Denver, those zoos are building both bull stalls and maternity stalls as well as setting aside space to do artificial insemination, just in case.
Asian Tropics is likely to cull its bulls from animals already in the U.S.; importing them from overseas is expensive and frowned upon. But zoo officials say it's too early to determine which bulls will come to Denver, since the exhibit won't be finished until 2011 or 2012.
In June, the zoo solicited bids from general contractors interested in building the exhibit. They received ten responses and hope to choose a contractor by September. "We'll start construction as soon as we have that contractor in place," Piper says. "We're ready to go."
When it's completed, the zoo's two current elephants, fifty-year-old Mimi and forty-year-old Dolly, will probably be the first to see it. "I want to walk Mimi and Dolly from their current facility to Asian Tropics and see the excitement of them exploring that new habitat, first and foremost," Piper says.
On a hot summer afternoon, it's easy to see that Mimi and Dolly are among the Denver Zoo's most popular attractions. Kids in matching summer-camp T-shirts crowd around the fence that surrounds their exhibit, leaning over to watch as the lumbering ladies give themselves dust baths and try to shake treats from a giant ball suspended from a chain like an enormous Kong dog toy. Fathers hold up babies, and old women in wheelchairs snap pictures.
At one point, Mimi turns her back to the visitors and starts to poop. Kindergarteners ooh and aah as softball-sized turds fall in a heap on the ground. Then she drenches the pile with a deluge of urine, like someone's turned on a huge faucet. "The elephant did pee-pee!" one small girl cries, pointing at the wet pile. "It looks like soda!" a boy shrieks.
Piper and Barnhart, the zoo's communications director, are standing nearby and don't bat an eye. To them, elephant poop is mundane, the stuff of everyday life. Instead, they prefer to envision what it will be like when there's an entire exhibit full of majestic bulls. "Asian Tropics is an exhibit like no other in terms of being able to see, potentially, a large group of bulls together," Piper says.
But not everything about that scenario could be described as "majestic." Visitors will be able to smell musth and maybe witness a boy-on-boy tussle. Or perhaps, if the zoo ever hosts a female of breeding age, catch a glimpse of some late-afternoon lovemaking. And they'll most definitely be treated to a gander at an elephant penis, up to four feet long, twelve inches wide and shaped like an S.
But then, the Denver Zoo has the balls to handle it.