DALLAS — The Dallas Zoo was heavily criticized for having elephants live in cramped and outdated enclosures. But now the zoo is riding high on the huge success of its new exhibit, Giants of the Savanna, where elephants have lots of room to roam.
Other American zoos are watching closely as Dallas uses new high-tech tools to monitor the animals' "quality of life" in their new exhibit
Jenny the elephant and five new friends live in what's considered one of the best zoo elephant habitats in the country.
In 2007, Jenny lived in the cramped confines of the Dallas Zoo's 50-year-old enclosure. Back then, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit and San Francisco had all closed their elephant exhibits, lacking the money and space to properly care for the massive pachyderms.
At the time, Dallas Zoo Director Greg Hudson wouldn't rule out the possibility of doing the same thing here.
Last year, the Zoo opened the sprawling Giants of the Savanna habitat, where elephants, giraffes and other species mix together — a new idea.
"The behaviors that you're seeing over here are behaviors I see out in the wild," said Dr. Charles Foley, an expert who helps manage and protect elephants at the Tarangire National Park in Tanzania.
Researchers at the Dallas Zoo say the amount of time Jenny spends exploring her environment is up more than 90 percent, and all the elephants have much healthier feet, which is a primary concern for captive elephants.
"I think it's amazing," Dr. Foley said. "I think they've done an amazing job over here."
Open spaces and mixing species has never been tried at an American zoo before, and neither has this: Using sophisticated tracking software to monitor and record every step an elephant takes.
It's a pilot program now, but soon all the elephants will wear ankle bands that transmit a radio signal. Then their movements will be tracked on a map of the exhibit.
Dallas Zoo biologist Sue Booth-Binczik explained how this technology will improve the lives of the elephants. "By giving us a better idea of what they're doing and how they're using what we give them," she said.
The research will show which spaces the elephants prefer, which animals they spend more time with, and how much exercise they get.
"We are pushing the envelope," said Dr. Lynn Kramer, the zoo's deputy director of animal conservation.
It all makes the habit and techniques developed in Dallas a must-see for other zoos looking to improve the quality of life for their animals.
"We're learning daily as we go along," Kramer said.