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Photos: Denver Zoo's $50M Toyota Elephant Passage opens today

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This is it, zoo fans. This is what you've been waiting for and dreaming of since you approved that $62.5 million zoo-improvement bond in 1999. Big, hulking male elephants -- up to eight of 'em -- living in City Park. Big, hulking male elephants and their big, hulking...trunks.

Today is the day that the Denver Zoo's $50 million Toyota Elephant Passage exhibit opens to the public.

"It's pretty magnificent how this site has been transformed," zoo CEO Craig Piper said this morning to a crowd that included city council members and kids who'd raised money for the elephants. The site is ten acres on the zoo's southern edge, which is much, much bigger than the old elephant habitat. Toyota Elephant Passage -- which was called Asian Tropics before seven local Toyota dealerships donated $5.4 million -- will also be home to several other species, including rhinos and tapirs.

"We want people to fall in love with elephants, rhinos and tapirs every day," Piper said, standing in front of a shiny red ribbon stretched across the exhibit's entrance. "If we touch the heart first, the mind will follow."

Click through to continue reading and see more photos. Piper was referring to the fact that Asian elephants are endangered. It's estimated that there are between 30,000 and 50,000 Asian elephants left in the wild, in countries such as Thailand, Sri Lanka and India. About 300 Asian elephants live in North America, either in zoos or on private lands. But very few of them are male, partly because male elephants are bigger, stronger and harder to house. Plus, there's the problem of musth, a period in which male elephants experience elevated hormone levels, heightened sexual interest and aggressive activity. In the wild, their penises protrude and, perhaps because of continuous urination, grow algae -- a condition known as "green weenie."

However, if you want to breed elephants to help ward off endangerment, you need both boys and girls -- and the Denver Zoo decided to build a home for bull elephants. The new exhibit can house twelve elephants altogether, up to eight of which could be male.

Right now, the zoo has four elephants. Mimi and Dolly, the zoo's two post-reproductive female elephants, have lived in Denver for years. Bodhi, a seven-year-old male, came to the zoo in late 2011. Groucho, who's 41, arrived in January.

One of the exhibit's coolest features is a railroad-style bridge near the entrance that serves as a walkway so the elephants can move from one part of the exhibit to the other. This morning, Bodhi ambled across it as the crowd ooh-ed and aah-ed. "Bodhi was our first elephant who decided, 'I'll cross that bridge,'" Piper says.

The exhibit will be open every day that the zoo is open, starting today. However, because the zoo expects an influx of visitors to Toyota Elephant Passage, timed entry reservations are required. You can make a reservation online.

Click through to see photos of the inside of the exhibit.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Woof in Boots grand opening proves there's life after MMJ for Vincent Palozzotto."

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