Toyota Elephant Passage provides more room for pachyderms to play
Dolly, the friendly older lady, and Bodhi, the hormonal adolescent boy, are the only elephants at the Denver Zoo to brave the bridge in their new habitat.
Born in the wild and later privately owned, Dolly, 48, is a self-assured aging lady. Bodhi, 8, is a temperamental young guy who loves to break his toys. Bodhi and Dolly are both Asian elephants and the most adventurous of the four currently housed in the Denver Zoo’s Toyota Elephant Passage.
Dolly traveled around the country doing shows at carnivals and county fairs before she came to the zoo in 1986.
“Dolly’s history means she’s been there, done that,” said Barb Junkermeier, one of Dolly’s trainers.
Adjusting to new surroundings came easier to Dolly than to the other elephants.
“Dolly is more willing to go out and explore,” said Rebecca McCloskey, assistant curator of Toyota Elephant Passage.
New zookeepers start out working with Dolly because she is more laid back than the other elephants and accepting of new people.
“She’s a sweet elephant,” McCloskey said. “She’s very forgiving.”
Dolly’s early life is somewhat of a mystery. Her trainers think Dolly is originally from Sri Lanka because, at 7,600 pounds, she is smaller than most other Asian elephants a trait of Sri Lankan elephants. Her keepers affectionately call her “Dainty Dolly.”
Unlike Dolly, Bodhi was born in captivity. He came from the Columbus Zoo to Denver in November 2011.
All elephants at the zoo learn to perform certain behaviors on their trainers’ command in return for apples, carrots, mangoes or grain treats.
Bodhi raises his great trunk above his head and lets the trainers throw goodies into his mouth. Dolly can’t do quite the same thing. Her trunk was partly paralyzed at some point in her shadowy past. She puts her trunk in her mouth instead, since she’s unable to raise it over her head.
Dolly knows around 25 behaviors and some of them are leftover from her carnival days. When told to “shake it up,” Dolly will wiggle her head back and forth.
“Their intelligence is up there with dolphins and whales,” said Gabe Kibe, an elephant trainer.
While Dolly, in her old age, is set in her ways and harder to train, Bodhi is learning new things every day.
“What’s cool about him is he’s young and eager to please,” Kibe said. “He makes you feel like you’ve really accomplished something as a trainer.”
Bodhi likes to learn new behaviors so he can receive more treats. He’s learning new commands constantly, like how to lie down on either side. Sometimes Bodhi tries a new behavior several times, to make sure he knows what he’s being rewarded for. Bodhi moves with surprising speed for his 7,200 pounds.
Pushing on structures and trying to knock things over is one of Bodhi’s favorite pastimes. He’s starting to go through a hormonal period that makes him a little temperamental.
“He just turned 8 so that’s like a 14-year-old boy,” McCloskey said. The trainers have to be careful around Bodhi because he might swing his trunk or throw things. He enjoys destroying his plastic toys and stacking sticks.
Bodhi and Dolly have much more room and many areas to explore in their new exhibit. The Toyota Elephant Passage is 10 acres in total. It features 6 connected living and play areas with 100 gated passages. The whole exhibit is built to give the animals mental stimulation and to let them explore and find out what they like to do on their own.
“We want people to see them as representatives of their wild counterparts,” McCloskey said.
Toyota Elephant Passage opened to the public June 1. Recommended separate reservations for the elephant exhibit can be made online. Entry is included with the price of zoo admission. The Denver Zoo is located at 2300 Steele street in City Park. The ticket office is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. while the zoo stays open until 6 p.m. Adult tickets are $15 per person.