Have a water fight with an elephant at the renewed Audubon Zoo

A 180 degree view of The Gator run, a lazy river ride under construction at the Audubon Zoo
A 180 degree view of The Gator run, a lazy river ride under construction at the Audubon Zoo

Away from the crowds, construction crews reshape the Audubon Zoo, or at least a big chunk of it.

"A lot of the people that come in, they're pretty much shocked when they come in and see all the construction going on," said Ron Forman, Audubon Institute CEO.

The construction, which will be complete sometime in early 2015, includes a new home for the zoo's Sumatran orangutans.

However, visitors should not feel sorry for Panya and Jean. The zoo's two elephants are slated to get a spacious new barn and roughly one acre of roaming area.

"Years ago, we realized that the elephants that were in this exhibit just didn't have enough land," Forman said.

At 42,000 square feet, the elephant exhibit will give the inhabitants about eight times the space of their old home.

The new arrangement will include gentle inclines, shade trees, two elephant pools and an "enrichment tree,'' a replica of a fallen tree trunk that will allow Panya and Jean to forage for food.

The overnight accommodations - the new barn - will feature heated, padded floors and space for up to four elephants.

"These animals are going to have a big space to roam around in and exercise and interact with the exhibit itself," said Joel Hamilton, the zoo's general curator.

The expansion also includes phase two of the Cool Zoo, a new lazy river ride dubbed "The Gator Run." Visitors will jump into inner tubes for a 7-minute ride through a loop measuring 3 feet deep and 12 feet wide.

Phase two will feature a new concessions area - also under construction - and for visitors, interaction with the elephants.

"There are actually sprays of water that the humans control on the elephant side," Hamilton said. "Then there are sprays of water on the human side that the elephants control."

Hamilton notes it may take some training before the elephants catch onto the idea that they can spray the humans on the other side of a glass wall in a separate body of water.

However, he said visitors will "have the feeling that you're actually in the pool with the elephants."

Zoo managers concede the $10 million investment is also aimed at ringing the cash register. The existing Cool Zoo had an immediate impact on attendance, drawing 100,000 additional visitors a year.

For the zoo's larger mission, Forman sees it as a means of fostering a love of zoos and animals in general among the very youngest visitors.

"As we build more concrete cities, kids are not growing up with the love of nature that they need to have," Forman said. "If we're going to protect nature for future generations, we've got to create passion in our kids."

The elephant exhibit also meets new, tougher accreditation standards.

The National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and others across the country, have given elephants more leg room.

"In a modern zoo you don't put magnificent animals like elephants in small enclosures," Forman said.