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What Killed the National Zoo’s Elephant?
Comments () | Published April 18, 2011

It’s a cold winter morning, and snow has started to fall at the National Zoo. You wouldn’t know it standing inside the new elephant barn: It’s 76 degrees in here.

Kumari—the first Asian elephant born at the zoo—was beloved by visitors, especially kids. Photo by Jessie Cohen.

The barn opened last September as part of the new Elephant Trails habitat, a testament to the zoo’s commitment to the species. In addition to the barn, the first phase of the expansion includes two outdoor yards, a quarter-mile elephant walking trail, and a courtyard with interactive exhibits for visitors. Phase two, slated for completion in 2013, will include an “elephant community center” where the animals can socialize as they would in the wild. The total cost—$52 million—makes it one of the largest undertakings in the zoo’s history.

The barn was built to house eight or more elephants, but Shanthi, Ambika, and Shanthi’s nine-year-old son, Kandula, are currently the only residents. The place feels palatial: It has two-story ceilings with an observation deck; five “suites,” or stalls where the elephants sleep, eat, and bathe; and a crane-like Elephant Restraining Device, which vets use for health exams.

The stalls are cordoned off by steel bars that can withstand up to 15,000 pounds of force. Kandula likes to reach his trunk between them, touching the keepers as they walk by.

Galloway and the other keepers no longer go into the stalls with him—they say he's too powerful and rambunctious. Though he just wants to play, he might bat at them with his trunk and deal a blow that could knock the wind out, or worse.

“In a way, it’s good to have that distance,” Galloway says. “After Kumari died, I built a shell around my heart. It was hard to come back from that.”

Kandula’s birth in 2001 was a big step in the healing process. Since then, Galloway has been the animal’s primary trainer. Not yet fully grown, Kandula weighs about 5,900 pounds and is nearly eight feet tall, but Galloway can get him to kneel, lift a foot, or walk in a circle at her command.

Part of the training was designed to acclimate Kandula to getting regular blood tests for herpes. There have been a few scares—days when he’s seemed “off,” just like Kumari, sending zoo vets and pathologists into a flurry of action—but so far he’s virus-free.

The zoo staff remains cautiously hopeful that the species and the herd at the National Zoo will grow and prosper in the face of a mysterious killer. That $52-million price tag for the new elephant habitat is more than an investment; it’s an act of defiance.

“If you want to make a commitment to a species, you have to take on all its challenges, even the scary ones,” says Tony Barthel, the elephant curator. “Herpes is one of those challenges. We can’t stop because we’re afraid.”

This article first appeared in the March 2011 issue of the Washingtonian.

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Posted at 11:30 AM/ET, 04/18/2011 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Articles