Do the Denver Zoo's elephants need giant Snuggies now that Punxsutawney Phil has predicted six more weeks of winter?

Are the elephants at the Denver Zoo freezing their giant butts off? In Defense of Animals says they are. The zoo says no way.

According to a Groundhog Day-themed report issued today by the animal watchdog group, the Denver Zoo is among the thirty-one U.S. zoos housing the hot-weather animals in cold-weather climes, which makes the elephants sad. Or crazy. IDA says that confining elephants (especially during long, hard winters) can lead to aggressive behavior and repetitive rocking or swaying, not to mention painful foot disease and arthritis.

"Cold weather dramatically increases the suffering that elephants already endure in zoos, where they are dying prematurely from conditions caused by their inadequate environment," says IDA's Catherine Doyle in a press release.

But Denver Zoo spokeswoman Tiffany Barnhart says the Mile High City's two elephants are well taken care of -- and that includes making sure they're warm.

"Our elephant care team has more than a hundred years of combined experience," she says. "They are in tune with what the elephants need and able to provide for them in all kinds of weather."

In fact, Barnhart says, when it's cold out, the zoo's two elephants -- Mimi and Dolly -- can choose whether they want to be inside or outside. If they choose to stay inside, their caretakers are sure to provide them with enriching activities, such as playing with a ball or scented log. (Hey, whatever works...) Today, Barnhart says, the ladies enjoyed an indoor bath.

"For us here at the Denver Zoo, we know its important to have elephants to help educate people about them, especially with Asian elephants, which are endangered," she says.

And the zoo is slated to bump up its elephant education with a newer, bigger exhibit. Asian Tropics, which is scheduled to be completed in 2011 or 2012, will be capable of housing twelve elephants. As many as eight of those elephants could be male, making the Denver Zoo the keeper of one of the largest herds of bull elephants in the country, a prospect highlighted in the Westword feature, "Caution: A Herd of Bull Elephants is Coming to the Denver Zoo."

Maybe once the bulls arrive, they can, uh, help keep Mimi and Dolly warm. If you know what I mean.

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