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A Mammoth Undertaking

In its biggest single improvement project ever, America’s only mountain zoo is opening a new African Encounter exhibit this winter. The $13.5 million project, is made possible by private donations – topped off by a huge $1.5 million joint gift from the Anschutz Foundation in Denver and local El Pomar Foundation. The zoo receives no tax dollars.

“They’re going to love this,” says elephant manager Jason Bredahl.

The new complex includes a mammoth (pardon the pun) elephant barn. Inside are a variety of enclosures that feature dirt floors, sand floors, concrete floors and rubberized floors. The elephants can choose which one they like. Radiant in-floor heating will keep the barn at a comfortable temperature when needed. Stalls are equipped with toys – barrels, hanging toys, cages with hay in them (takes them longer to eat and challenges them a bit).

“Elephants eat about 120 pounds of food a day, so this makes it more interesting,” Bredahl says.

There’s even a splash pool inside, where they can take an elephant bath – showering the water over themselves.

Visitors to the barn can see everything from elevated boardwalks, to get a bird’s-eye-view of all the care and work that goes into managing the elephant herd. One day, you might see them getting their feet manicured. Another, getting a scrub-down.

There are two exits – one directly into the outdoor enclosure and one that goes around the side of the mountain to the enclosure, if they want a little exercise.
In the outdoor space, they’ll find everything an elephant could want. There will be a waterfall, a mud bath, a plunge pool 10 feet deep for complete immersion “like they sometimes do in the wild,” Bredahl says.
An unusual feature of the new digs is an elephant retreat. The zoo has set aside and fenced about 3 acres of treed, fairly flat mountain side, so the elephants can get away from people once in a while “and just go be elephants,” he says.

The new African Encounter exhibit tentatively opens in November, but public access will depend on how quickly the pachyderms adjust to the space. Visitors should be able to see it by December at the latest. A grand opening event is scheduled for spring.

African Encounter will include a rhinoceros exhibit, also with a pool and mud bath. The zoo plans to offer some special programs whereby visitors can get up-close-and-personal with the beasts, like a chance to scrub a rhino.

When people come experience this new exhibit, “we want them to get goosebumps,” says Bredahl. Or, maybe, elephant bumps.

About the Zoo

The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo opened in 1926. It grew out of the personal menagerie owned by Broadmoor Hotel builder Spencer Penrose.

It started with a bear. A few elk. Some deer. An escaped boa constrictor. And an elephant, appropriately enough.

Eventually, the animals needed a home of their own, away from hotel guests. And so the zoo was born.

To this day, it is the nation’s only mountain zoo and recent improvements, such as the Colorado wildlife exhibit, keep visitors coming back year after year to see what’s new.

“The trustees of the El Pomar Foundation are impressed with the zoo’s efforts to continually improve, expand and innovate,” says El Pomar CEO and Chairman William J. Hybl. “(This) will take a treasured community asset and make it even better.”