Elephants: As population dwindles, Milwaukee zoo’s quarters enlarge

Elephants are the world’s largest mammals, and it is harder to see one in person because the species is dwindling, in captivity and the wild.

Ringling Bros. retired its elephant performers to a 200-acre Florida sanctuary in 2016, one year before the Wisconsin-born company’s final circus.

Winkie and Penny, the last elephants at Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison, were moved to elephant sanctuaries in 2000. The U.S. Department of Agriculture ordered the change because of the zoo’s poor, confining living conditions.

Less than 400,000 African elephants and 35,000 of the smaller Asian elephants remain worldwide. Status of the first species is “vulnerable,” and the other is “endangered.”

An estimated 500 elephants live in North America. That includes elephants at zoos and sanctuaries. Some are retired performers, and others continue to work. Accredited zoos house about 300 of the elephants.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums banned its members from keeping just one elephant in 2001. Five years later, the organization mandated minimum standards for elephant habitat and care.

Much of this got Milwaukee County Zoo officials thinking about the future of its two elephants, Brittany and Ruth, both African elephants and middle-aged at 38 years old. Research, via focus groups, concluded that elephants and giraffes are the top wildlife that visitors come to see.

The popularity of elephants is one reason why, out of 350 species of wildlife that live at the zoo, the decision was made to devote significantly more space to the pachyderms.

A new, 1.6-acre outdoor area is four times greater than the elephants’ previous indoor/outdoor space. Their pool is bigger, holding 98,000 gallons of water, enough for three elephants to submerge. A new, indoor elephant care center adds 20,000 square feet of shelter.

What Milwaukee’s zoo has now, through the recently opened and $16.6 million “Adventure Africa” area, is enough space for five elephants. The next one or two are expected in six to eight months.

“Every elephant is different in personality, and every day with them is different,” observes Erin Dowgwillo, care coordinator for Brittany and Ruth for more than 10 years.

She describes them as intelligent animals: They pretend to sleep if they want to ignore a directive. They will solve problems, like finding a rock or log to reach a higher elevation.

In the zoo’s former moose yard is an “enrichment wall” – with nooks, barrels with openings – to give elephants a way to forage for hay or vegetable treats. Poles for rubbing poles are slightly flexible. An outdoor shower is self-activated.

“We are giving them more opportunities for normal behavior – to lay down, dig holes, debark real trees” and find things to eat by reaching overhead, Dowgwillo says.  “They have more space, but this is about how the space is used too. It’s not just about having more.”

At daily “Elephant in Action” talks, visitors can ask questions of zookeepers, sometimes as they do medical checks on Brittany and Ruth. What happens, in part, depends on the elephants’ mood. “They have good days and bad days,” Dowgwillo says, and it’s important to respect those rhythms. “We know we’re kind of a part of the herd.”

“Adventure Africa” – which also includes separate, mixed-species areas – is phase one of a $40 million plan to transform the zoo. Next up: changes to hippo and rhino areas.

Milwaukee County Zoo, 10001 W. Bluemound Rd., Milwaukee, is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, through Sept. 2. Then hours of operation shorten. Admission is $16.25 (less for elders, children). milwaukeezoo.org

Where else in Wisconsin can you see elephants? The seasonal menagerie at Circus World in Baraboo includes three female Asian elephants – Lisa, Becky and Traci. All are in their 40s.

The trio perform twice daily during Big Top shows. They are in a rotation to offer short rides, 30 minutes before and after each show, weather permitting.

Proceeds from the $10 rides help pay for the elephants’ care, says Scott O’Donnell, executive director of Circus World. Each elephant eats about 200 pounds of food and 25 gallons of water per day.

“We are committed to the preservation of this species, the enrichment of their lives, the best of care and sharing their majesty with children of all ages,” O’Donnell writes. He describes the Circus World experience as one that “allows visitors to see, learn and appreciate” the species.

The elephants return each winter to the Endangered Ark Foundation in Hugo, Okla. The private nonprofit for Asian elephants has a herd of at least eight and includes retired circus elephants. endangeredarkfoundation.org

Circus World, 550 Water St., Baraboo, is devoted to circus history. Museum buildings are open mid-March to Oct. 31. Daily circus shows are mid-May to Sept. 1. Admission depends upon time of year. circusworldbaraboo.org

The attraction is one of the dozen Wisconsin Historical Society historic sites. gettoknowwisconsin.org

A trip to Thailand in 2010 taught me that when elephants are trained to work, they lose their ability to survive in the wild. Thousands were either abandoned or massacred for their ivory tusks 30 years ago, after commercial logging of teak was banned.

Seventy percent of the country’s forestland had disappeared by then, and elephants were what moved the heavy logs. Four years later, the government-run Thai Elephant Conservation Center opened with a herd of 50 on 300 acres of forest near Chiang Mai.

Open for tours are an elephant hospital and a factory that makes paper products from dried dung. Some elephants move logs, paint and play music during daily shows. Tourists take a ride on others.

Visitors also watch mahouts (elephant caretakers) bath the animals, but another option is to stay one or two nights to learn one-to-one elephant handling and care. One-month programs are a much deeper immersion into the mahout’s lifestyle.

Proceeds from these diversions are what pay for the animals’ care. At night, most return to the sanctuary’s forest. thailandelephant.org

The nonprofit World Wildlife Fund, a conservation effort with involvement in 100 countries, makes it possible to symbolically adopt an African elephant, African elephant calf or pygmy elephant at worldwildlife.org. The cost is $25 to $250.