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Encounter Africa exhibit opens at zoo

April 24, 2013
photo - Malaika, one of four African Elephants at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, explores the zoo's new "Encounter Africa" exhibit Wednesday, April 24, 2013. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette Photo by MARK REIS, THE GAZETTE
Malaika, one of four African Elephants at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, explores the zoo's new "Encounter Africa" exhibit Wednesday, April 24, 2013. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette Photo by MARK REIS, THE GAZETTE 

Fresh from her bath, Lucky the elephant was ready for her shower.

The 8,000-pound African pachyderm lumbered to the center of her pen and paused to tap the ground gingerly with the tip of her trunk. Then, like a penitent beach bully, she scooped in and began swiping great plumes of sand and dirt over her shoulders and flanks — again and again and again.

“She had a bath a little bit earlier, so now she’s making sure she’s fully coated. That’s why we provide that great substrate,” said Jason Bredahl, elephant and animal care manager at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, looking down on the pens from the visitor viewing platform inside the new Wilgruen Elephant Center. “That was not possible in the old environment.”

And the interesting noise Lucky’s making now, like a kid — a giant kid — blowing a raspberry?

A blissed-out elephant, in the wild, might do the same.

“We equate that noise to a cat purring,” Bredahl said. “All the animals are exhibiting much more natural behavior and seem a lot happier.”

What Bredahl means is that Lucky and her barn mates have settled, as hoped, into their new digs at the Wilgruen center, which opened in 2011 during an initial phase of the zoo’s $13.5 million Encounter Africa exhibit. The 10-acre exhibit officially opens to the public Wednesday.

Encounter Africa is the result of the zoo’s largest capital campaign, a two-year effort that raised $13.5 million through foundation and individual gifts, including $42,000 from zoo staff. The zoo is one of only a handful nationwide that don’t receive support from tax dollars.

Lucky shares the elephant barn with three other female African elephants and a male eastern black rhinoceros named Jumbe, who was relocated from a Texas zoo in the fall of 2012. Jumbe, pronounced joom-bay, is the first rhino to call the zoo home since a female named Shy Anne was moved to the Denver Zoo in 2000, during earlier renovations.

“We’re really excited to have the black rhino back,” zoo president Bob Chastain said.

Also housed in new indoor and outdoor enclosures within the exhibit are the zoo’s mob of seven meerkats and the five-member lion pride, whose habitat officially will open in July. Among the pride is Abuto, a 21-month-old male African lion the zoo acquired earlier this year.

A skyway to the Wilgruen center stretches over the exhibit’s outdoor enclosures, above rhino and elephant mud wallows, dirt playgrounds, a 20-foot waterfall and an elephant swimming pool deep enough for the zoo’s largest resident, 10,000-pound, 9-foot-6 Kimba, to submerge.

“We believe our animals deserve the best home we can provide,” Chastain said. “We won’t stop until every exhibit is the absolute best it can be.”

The elephants — and everybody, really — have a bear to thank.

It was the gift of a bear in 1916 that inspired mining mogul and philanthropist Spencer Penrose to begin collecting exotic animals, housing them at his Turkey Creek Ranch and in pens and cages on the grounds of The Broadmoor, which he and his wife bought and renovated in 1918. Penrose eventually began consolidating his growing menagerie, relocating the animals to a tract of land up the mountainside where, in 1926, he founded Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, the nation’s first and only mountain zoo.

“Many people might have thought he was crazy for putting a zoo on a mountain, but we think he was dead-on,” Chastain said. “It’s what has allowed Cheyenne Mountain Zoo to become one of the most beautiful zoos in America.”

In 1938, the year before he died, Penrose incorporated the zoo as a nonprofit public trust and gave it to the people of Colorado Springs, along with a holistic decree: Enjoy it, preserve it and learn from it. Expansion projects continue to be built on those ideals.

“We want our guests to fall in love with animals, to be inspired by them and to take action to protect the natural world,” Chastain said. “People will preserve what they care about.”

Encounter Africa began with the elephants.

“Elephants are a big part of people’s lives in terms of wild animals they want to see,” said Chastain, who has a panoramic view of the new habitat — and to Kansas on a clear day — from his office window. In the old elephant exhibit, “it felt like they were a mile away, even if they were right below you. You really didn’t get an impression of how big they were because you were standing on a wall looking down.”

Like the zoo’s Rocky Mountain Wild exhibit, opened in 2008 and designed around a single 200-year-old white fir, the Encounter Africa site was built — conceptually and actually — around a “sacred grove” of Gambel oak trees.

“It’s about honoring the site you’ve been given to work with. Everything we do has to be able to enhance the natural beauty of this site,” Chastain said. “We wanted it to look like we dropped the exhibit right down on the mountain.”

It’s a vision the zoo plans to adhere to as development continues on the 150-acre plot, which welcomed 607,000 visitors in 2012. The zoo already has begun planning for its next phase — the Australia Improvement Project, with new habitats for the wallabies, budgies and American alligators.

“We are going to make moderate-priced improvements to the zoo so people continue to come back,” Chastain said. “We will not stop until every exhibit is built in such a way as to maximize the impact each animal has on our guests and their attitude toward the environment.”

In addition to expanded viewing during animals’ enrichment and play times, Encounter Africa will give zoo guests a glimpse behind the scenes. Visitors can be present for rhino feeding times, and watch the elephants receive regular foot care and cleanings.

“There aren’t a lot of walls so basically everything’s up front and keepers and animals are always able to be seen by guests,” Bredahl said.

Interactive habitat features, such as a termite mound that dispenses live crickets to meerkats, keep the animals busy and entertained. There’s also an outdoor amphitheater for educational presentations.

A rhino training area lets visitors experience Jumbe “in his full glory,” Bredahl said. Visitors can view the rhino from inside a restored bush plane perched above the outdoor enclosure. Nearby, there’s a rhino sculpture that, when activated, will unleash a 10-foot stream of “urine,” as the animal will do to mark its territory in the wild.

No worries, though — it’s potable water.

“And I’m sure it’s nice on a hot day,” Bredahl said.

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