Wildlife Safari elephants get new watering hole

WINSTON, Ore. (AP) Elephants George, Alice and Tava will soon be able to explore the construction project they've been watching since October at Wildlife Safari.

Elephant supervisor Katie Alayan said the trio has been intently absorbed in the activity that will result in their new watering hole.

"They have been watching this like TV," she said with a laugh.

The watering hole has elements for people as well as pachyderms. There's an underground tunnel that takes human visitors into an enclosure, a 12-foot waterfall for the elephants' splashing pleasure and a seating area above the falls so people can enjoy the view. The results far exceeded Safari employees' expectations, Alayan said.

The project was undertaken by Roseburg-based Victory Builders. The design is by Victory's Tom Pappas, who has built thematic elements at Disneyland and constructed the faux log entryway to the Douglas County Fairgrounds.

The 14,000-gallon "splash pond" is about 50 feet by 55 feet and plunges to 6.5 feet at its deep end. A waterfall in the middle of the sloping pool will drop a wide tide of water into the pool. A fountain carved to resemble an elephant's trunk will spew water into the air.

Staff initially expected to see a concrete bowl the elephants could use for wading and splashing, Alayan said.

"We were not anticipating we would have an observation deck and a waterfall," she said. "The scale he has taken this to is incredible."

Pappas confirmed that the elephants have been attentive during construction.

As construction workers threw dirt, George threw sticks around his pen to mimic them, he said.

"They've been very curious," Pappas said.

Building construction was completed over the weekend, Pappas said, and the Safari must now erect fences to finish the job. The new feature is expected to open in early June.

Visitors can walk through the underground tunnel to a viewing area that takes them below the waterfall. They can then climb a spiral staircase to the deck that overlooks the waterfall and splash pond.

From the top, visitors can look through an opening and see all the way to the monkey or bear enclosures, Pappas said.

Visitors on the drive-through will pass directly by the new feature.

The majority of the viewing will be done by drive-thru visitors, but people can go up the tower for an extra encounter fee, Safari executive director Dan Van Slyke said.

The elephants cost approximately $250,000 to care for annually, and the Safari must offset those costs somehow, he said.

The new structure will also be used for kids' camp adventures and business dinners on the seating area, he said.

Alayan said it is more crucial than ever to connect humans and elephants because of the animal's dwindling population numbers in the wild.

"A critical aspect of conservation is bringing people together with animals," she said.

Trainers will slowly introduce the elephants to the new feature in stages, she said.

"We view it as a training opportunity," she said.

The funding comes from the latest auction of the Ladies Auxiliary of Wildlife Safari, which has paid for a park improvement each of the past 18 years. Wells Fargo also donated $10,000.

The rest of the project is financed by Pappas, who has donated much of his time and money.

"We really appreciate the efforts of Tom Pappas," Van Slyke said. "He wanted to do it for his community. We said, 'Do whatever you want to do, we trust you.' But nobody anticipated this."

Van Slyke said there is no similar elephant watering hole anywhere else in the country.

The Safari will offer dinner gatherings on the observation deck featuring wine crushed by the elephants.

Tables on the deck are made out of tiles Pappas bought at an auction many years ago. The large tiles have animal-related questions, such as "How much water can a camel hold in its hump?"

Answers are found on other tiles around the diners.

The new enclosure this will give the elephants more space to spread out, Van Slyke said.

"A lot of people will appreciate the (viewing) space. It's not encroaching on the animals. It's a nice way to see them," he said.


Information from: The News-Review,