During the months that the Maryland Zoo’s elephant exhibit was under construction, Kevin Leary and his two young sons peered through the trees to sneak a glimpse of the hulking creatures.
But on Saturday, there was no need for Leary or his boys to crane their necks or squint their eyes. Tuffy, the 10,000 pound bull, lumbered along right in front of them to grab a bite of hay.
“Look how close he is, James!” Kevin shouted to his six-year-old son, who was eager to visit the elephants in their new home.
The zoo celebrated the grand opening of its expanded “African Journey” section this weekend, with hundreds of families filing past the revamped elephant, lion and giraffe habitats. The $20 million face-lift is more than a year in the making, and represents the largest renovation in the zoo’s 143-year history.
“It’s wonderful to watch all these families bring their children and hear the comments as they see the lion up close or watch Tuffy from a whole new perspective,” said Margaret Rose-Innes, the zoo’s assistant general curator.
The outdoor habitat for Tuffy and his fellow African elephants nearly tripled to 77,330 square feet — larger, now, than a football field. There are new guest pathways that allow visitors to observe elephants from different vantage points as they wander around.
To celebrate the grand opening, zoo volunteers fanned out across the newly completed exhibits. Enthralled kids watched as one volunteer demonstrated the size and shape of an elephant’s tooth. They learned that African elephants grow six sets of teeth — compared to humans’ who just have baby teeth and adult teeth. Elephants’ molars wear down quickly as they grind up their diet of tree bark and roots.
Beatrice and Alice Meredith, ages 3 and 2, pressed their noses against the fence separating Tuffy’s exhibit from the crowd of onlookers. Beatrice likes watching his big ears flap; Alice loves his swinging trunk.
The girls ask their mom, Lauren Meredith of Cockeysville, nearly every weekend if they can come to the zoo. She’s impressed by the new exhibit, and how open and spacious it feels.
“It feels really close,” she said. “Like you really get to experience how the elephant is and looks beyond a storybook.”
The reaction of kids like Beatrice and Alice — the squeals of amazement and shouts of wonder — is what makes the work worth it to Rose-Innes.
“I hope that the new exhibits really create a close connection with the animals they see here and, in time, it will encourage them to think about conservation and what we as humans can do to ensure these animals exist in the wild for generations to come,” she said.
Reminders of why that’s important are sprinkled throughout the exhibit. One sign informs visitors the elephant population in Africa declined more than 96 percent between 1913 and 2019.
Portions of the new area opened in phases earlier this spring. It can be difficult, Rose-Innes said, to acclimate zoo animals to new habitats, even if they do include nicer spaces and more features. It took Caesar the giraffe three weeks to venture outside into his renovated space.
“We let him dictate the pace,” Rose-Innes said.
His female companions started to emerge more recently, she said, and the zoo’s goal is to get all four members of the herd outside together at some point in the summer.
The lions dealt with a big adjustment, as well. In the old layout, the giant cats looked out onto the giraffe exhibit. Now, there’s a pathway for visitors in between those two habitats.
The lions must adjust to looking so directly at people — and having people stare eye-to-eye back at them.
Zuri, the lioness, has so far been bolder and more curious than her male counterpart. She ventures up to the viewing window, while he’s more likely to lurk in the grass.
Standing on the pavilion in front of the lion viewing window, visitors can swivel their heads to see into both the giraffe and elephant exhibits.
The African Journey exhibit’s revamped design includes a passageway that makes it possible for the giraffes to eventually cross from their dedicated habitat to the “Upper Savanna” section of the elephants’ space
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Perhaps one day, the zoo hopes, the giraffes and elephants will be able to share the habitat, just as they would in the wild.