Sedgwick County zookeeper Kinna Middleton rewards 43-year-old elephant Stephanie with a treat: barbecue sauce. Jaime Green The Wichita Eagle
Sedgwick County zookeeper Kinna Middleton rewards 43-year-old elephant Stephanie with a treat: barbecue sauce. Jaime Green The Wichita Eagle

Local

Sedgwick County Zoo completes fundraising for elephant exhibit

The Wichita Eagle

June 03, 2015 11:25 AM

UPDATED June 03, 2015 07:16 PM

Mark Reed was exuberant Wednesday morning:

The elephants are coming.

The Sedgwick County Zoological Society has completed the $10.6 million fundraising campaign for construction of the new Elephants of the Zambezi River Valley exhibit. And Reed, director of the Sedgwick County Zoo could, at first, say only three words: “We. Are. Pumped.”

It’s been a long time coming.

Never miss a local story.

Sign up today for a free 30 day free trial of unlimited digital access.

In the 36 years that Reed has been at the Sedgwick County Zoo, including nearly 25 as the zoo’s director, he has yearned for a renowned elephant exhibit with a breeding population.

In 2009, he told The Eagle, “I want to be here to see the first baby elephant born in Kansas,” Reed said.

Zoo officials announced Wednesday that nearly 700 donors contributed to the project with money ranging from a single dollar up to $1 million. Sedgwick County contributed $5.3 million.

“This is the highest number of individual gifts we’ve received for an exhibit and it shows how much the community wanted to make sure we could not only keep elephants but improve their home,” Scott Ochs, president of the Sedgwick County Zoological Society, said in a statement.

“The reason I am so excited is because I think a lot of people doubted we could do this,” Reed said Wednesday. “But the community showed their love for the animals and the elephants.”

For years, Cinda and Stephanie were two of the most beloved animals at the zoo. The two African elephants arrived in 1972. Cinda died Nov. 5.

Reed said he hopes that the elephant exhibit’s construction will be complete by the end of this month. The elephant grounds will then be sodded and Stephanie will be moved to the new exhibit in late August or early September.

The new exhibit will be slightly more than five acres. It will feature two yards for people to see six African elephants. Only the San Diego Safari Park and North Carolina State Zoo will have bigger elephant exhibits, Reed said.

It will be the first exhibit in the world to feature boat rides that will put visitors in the same water as elephants, zoo officials said.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums is requiring its zoos that feature elephants to have at least three females, two males or three elephants of mixed gender by September 2016. The Sedgwick County Zoo’s elephant exhibit is slated to open Memorial Day weekend 2016.

As the lone elephant, Stephanie has done well since Cinda’s death, Reed said. But when the other elephants arrive, it will take time for her to get acquainted and make friends.

“We will take our time. First there will be visual contact,” he said. “They will get to see each other and know each other’s presence.

“It really is no different than any other species. They will need to be next to each other and once we see accepting signs and behavior, we will open the doors. I don’t anticipate there will be any major problem.”

The zoo, Reed said, is interviewing for an elephant manager. Once that manager is hired, there will be five elephant keepers who will help manage the exhibit.

Reed is in negotiations for “boy and girl elephants of breeding age,” he said Wednesday.

“The community did this,” Reed said. “It makes you feel good.

“We will have a world-class elephant facility.”

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @beccytanner.