Animals: National Zoo's elephants get a new home

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WASHINGTON -- The elephants at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., have a new hangout. The old Elephant House has been renovated to include a lot more space for the giant animals to play, rest and even take a shower. It has been renamed the Elephant Community Center, and it also offers a lot more for human guests.

"It's a great place for elephants to socialize," said Marie Galloway, the elephant manager at the zoo. "And to just plain hang out."

The community center, which opened last month, is the final piece of the redesigned Elephant Trails exhibition. It is designed to hold as many as 10 elephants, zoo officials said. Although the zoo plans to increase the herd, there are now just three residents: Ambika, Shanthi and Kandula.

Ms. Galloway said each animal reacted differently to the new space. Shanthi, a 38-year-old female, walked right in and "explored every nook and cranny," Ms. Galloway said. Ambika, a 65-year-old female, was very cautious the first day, not sure if the new space was safe.

And Kandula, Shanthi's 11-year-old son, had a funny way of dealing with the unknown. "He backed his way in," Ms. Galloway said with a laugh.

All three have roamed on the heated floor. That new floor, covered with 4 feet of sand, is a big change from the old concrete. The surface is intended not just to help cushion the feet of the elephants, the heaviest of which weighs 9,000 pounds.

The community center also has two water features: a heated pool and a shower. The elephants also have a new scratching post with hanging toys and a tree that bends when the elephants push on it. Kandula has already managed to knock it down.

The new space has several hands-on activities for humans, including a machine that compares elephant sounds and human voices. You also can make a pledge to save the elephants.

That last part -- conservation -- is the message zoo officials hope visitors will take away from the exhibition.

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