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Denver Zoo's new elephant exhibit renamed Toyota Elephant Passage after $5.4 mil donation

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Update, 4:15 p.m.:. The Denver Zoo's revealed how much money seven local Toyota dealerships donated to the newly christened Toyota Elephant Passage exhibit, slated to open in June 2012. The figure? $5.4 million, the zoo's second-largest donation ever. Read on for more details.

Original post, 2:59 p.m.: The Denver Zoo's new exhibit -- formerly called Asian Tropics -- has a new name, a new infusion of cash and an official opening date. Now called Toyota Elephant Passage thanks to a multi-million- dollar gift from the Denver Toyota Dealers Association, the ten-acre exhibit for elephants, rhinos and tapirs will open June 1, 2012.

The details were announced at a morning reception held in a zoo banquet hall decorated for the season with fake snowflakes, garlands and a lit-up Christmas tree. Donors and dignitaries munched on a breakfast buffet of eggs, muffins, fruit and tiny quiche as jazzy remakes of popular songs -- Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun," anyone? -- played in the background. After 9 a.m., zoo CEO Craig Piper took the microphone at a podium flanked by cardboard cut-outs of two of the zoo's elephants, Dolly and the newly arrived Bodhi.

He called the new exhibit "a bold plan" to help save the endangered Asian elephant. "When I started my first zoo job, there were 100,000 Asian elephants" in the wild, Piper said. "Now, just a few short decades later, there are only about 30,000.

"We will not sit idly by and let elephants disappear from our planet."

The plan -- which calls for housing up to twelve elephants, eight of which could be male -- is bold, indeed. As explained in our 2009 feature, "Trunk Show," male elephants are bigger, stronger and less understood than female elephants. Not to mention that they experience a hormonal period called musth, which is characterized by heightened sexual interest and aggressive activity -- basically, middle school with 12,000-pound students.

Mayor Michael Hancock was also on hand to praise the zoo and the Toyota dealers, nine men in suits who streamed into the banquet room on cue and stood in front of the cut-out of Bodhi the elephant. Hancock called the zoo "one of my favorite places" in Colorado and praised the 300 construction jobs the new exhibit created since it broke ground two years ago. In addition, he said the exhibit will enhance the zoo experience "for animals and guests; sometimes those are the same people." He paused. "That was a joke," he explained. After Hancock, Go Toyota General Manager Jeff Thorpe took the mic. "The zoo's commitment to conservation aligns with Toyota's fuel-efficiency goals and the launch of the new Prius family of vehicles," he said. The zoo regularly participates in conservation projects around the world. Earlier this year, staff traveled to Asia to help conserve Asian elephants and a species of monkey that looks like Michael Jackson. Meanwhile, the 2012 Prius reportedly gets 51 mpg.

Though Piper says the Toyota dealers want to keep the exact amount of their gift confidential, he did give a few hints. It's several million dollars, he says, and it's the second-biggest donation the zoo has ever received. (The biggest was $7 million from the Janus Foundation to fund the zoo's Predator Ridge exhibit, which opened in 2004.)

To build the $50-million, ten-acre Toyota Elephant Passage, the zoo had to raise $25 million to supplement $25 million in bond money approved by Denver voters in 1999. At the beginning of this year, Piper says the zoo was still $7 million short. Since then, it's raised $10 million, he says. "There's been great momentum," he says.

More from our News archives: "Cranbeary the widowed Denver Zoo polar bear gets another chance at Thanksgiving romance."

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