The two largest ladies in Santa Barbara are about to get a bigger and better living space.
The Santa Barbara Zoo began renovating its Asian elephant exhibit, the Elephant Barn, last week. The additions will cost an estimated $2.6-2.7 million and will triple the size of the 5,000-square-foot enclosure and add an interactive wall for the elephants to play with. The moat surrounding the exhibit will be removed and the walkways will be made less steep so the exhibit is more accessible to people with strollers or wheelchairs.
This is the second phase of renovation to the Elephant Barn. The first phase was completed in 2000 and included a heated floor. Zoo director Richard Block said removing the moat would give the elephants additional perks.
“By eliminating the moat we will give the animals access to the yard 24 hours a day. Before we didn’t want them falling in the moat so we brought them in at night. Now they can go inside and warm their feet or they can go outside and look at the stars or sleep under the stars,” Block said.
During the renovations some sites will be closed or relocated. The adult desert tortoises and the American alligator exhibits will be closed. There is limited viewing of the ring-tail lemurs, and the spurred tortoises and alligator snapping turtle have also been relocated. The zoo planned for the construction to take place at this time so it would not conflict with the tourist season. Block said business has not been affected by the construction.
“There’s no way to do this without disrupting traffic flow, but most people seem to be keeping pretty happy,” Block said.
Currently the zoo has approximately $1.1 million for the renovations from the Zoofari Ball 2000 and private donations.
“With most investments it is hard to see the returns, but here the return is you’ll enrich the experiences of millions of people, and you’ll make life better for the two largest girls in Santa Barbara,” Block said.
The zoo has temporarily relocated Suzie and Mac, the two 32-year-old Asian elephants, to a private facility in northern California for the duration of the construction. Suzie and Mac are originally from a zoo in Misore, India. The Santa Barbara Zoo acquired the two elephants in exchange for two sea lions.
The Santa Barbara-based animal rights organization All for Animals said it is in favor of the new exhibit.
“My understanding is that elephants in the wild travel great distances and the problem is that [the enclosure] is so small, but from what I understand [the new enclosure] is just going to be a lot more natural,” All for Animals founder Karen Lee Stevens said.
Blackbird Architects, a local company started by UCSB mechanical and environmental engineering alum Ken Radtkey designed the renovations. The company has done a number of projects for the zoo in the past, including the Cats of Africa exhibit.
“Elephants are gradually getting phased out of zoo captivity programs because they’re so large. The regulations for elephants keep getting bigger and better,” Radtkey said. “One of the great things is we’re tripling the space so they can roam around in the yard or in the pool. It’s kind of like building for people, only bigger.”
The renovations will also include an enrichment wall for Suzie and Mac. The wall will consist of holes that the caretakers can hide treats and toys in for the elephants to find.
“It’s all about enrichment. We want them to have things that are physically and neurologically stimulating,” Radtkey said. “They have incredible dexterity and they like to play and fidget with things. The wall will have holes and things that they can smell and touch.”
The zoo is also improving accessibility in addition to the renovations. The walk from the flamingos to the elephant and sea lion exhibits currently has a very steep grade, which will be lessened so the walkway is in full compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“In a perfect world, in my mind, there would be no zoos. But as long as there are people and animals there will be zoos,” Stevens said. “It is good that the Santa Barbara Zoo enriches the animals’ experience as well as the people’s.”