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El Paso Zoo's Elephant Festival had pachyderm painting, bubble baths

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The El Paso Zoo's 12th annual Elephant Festival June 7-8 included breakfast with the pachyderms, bubble baths for them, and painting by Savannah, at 62, one of the oldest elephants in North America.

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Missed that breakfast? Nary a worry, you can feed a giraffe at the zoo, like I did -- more about the "Giraffe Encounter" later.

Lucky participants in last weekend's Elephant Produce Hunt entered their habitat to hide food for them. Then, when safely outside the habitat, guests watched the two Asian elephants, Savannah and Juno search for and eat their breakfast.

The elephant fest, "a ton of fun", also had opportunities for guests to learn how to help save elephants in the wild. (Conservationists estimate a wild population of only 35,000 elephants across the entire range of the species, notes the zoo.)

Children, inspired by Savannah's artistic ability, colored a picture of an elephant that will be sent to President Obama in support of the 96 Elephants Campaign to help save African elephants. El Paso Zoo early this year joined the "96 Elephants" organization, named for the estimate of African elephants killed daily.

Missed this chance to help? Every day at noon, zoo visitors can learn about its conservation education program that focuses "on the last remaining herd of about 200 Sumatran elephants living in Tesso Nilo National Park," says Rick LoBello, El Paso Zoo education curator.

Another way to help -- do not use palm oil. Its production "is killing elephants and other endangered animals around the world as their tropical rainforest habitat is destroyed by expanding palm oil plantations, the largest cause of deforestation in Indonesia and other equatorial countries," LoBello explains.

(Also, do not buy ivory. Two related events in Washington, D.C.:

The El Paso Zoo has a wide range of programs to help other endangered and even critically endangered species in breeding programs at the zoo, as well as in the animals' natural habitats.

"We're setting boots on the ground in conservation hot spots," zoo director Steve Marshall told me.

Zoo veterinarian Victoria Milne just arrived in Indonesia to temporarily help preserve orangutans and also sun bears, in joint projects with University of Texas at El Paso.

Just before Dr. Milne left, she and Marshall led visiting journalists on a tour May 29.

The zoo's newest additions include the critically endangered pronghorn antelope. Only 200 to 250 still exist in the wild, said Dr. Milne. "These are really special, the last species in existence of those in North America." They're somewhere between a sheep and a deer, more than an antelope. A sign says, "pronghorn fawns are somewhat sensitive to noise and people."

The Przewalski's wild horse became extinct in the wild during the 1960s. Thanks to zoos and other facilities where small groups of Przewalski's horses still survived, a breeding conservation program was established in 1977. Today, there are approximately 325 re-introduced and native-born Przewalski's wild horses living in Mongolia.

Marshall pointed out the many projects funded by the city's 2012 Quality of Life bond issue, that allotted $50 million for the zoo.

The substantial funding is assisting their mission "to celebrate the value of animals and natural resources, and create opportunities for people to understand their connection to nature."

That value definitely extends to the animals' "mental health as well as physical health," Marshall commented. "Enrichments" include piñatas, puzzle feeders, milk jugs, and other amusements appropriate for the 200-plus species.

The animals are fed the same quality fruit and produce that local restaurants serve -- "We use the same food suppliers that restaurants use," Marshall said.

Speaking of restaurants, this zoo even has its own executive chef, Miguel. "He bakes his own bread and creates southwestern cuisine -- We don't want to serve zoo feed," said food and beverage general manager Danny. One southwestern specialty is green chili cheeseburger.

And, as for my feeding the giraffe: A.J.'s 15-inch-long tongue wrapped around the lettuce leaves I held ever so timorously. Romaine will never seem the same. It was so much fun that I stood in line a second time to give A.J. another helping.

"You might get a little slobber on your hand, but that's the best part," said Abel, one of A.J.'s keepers.

Visiting the El Paso Zoo was one of the best parts of experiencing this vibrant, ton of fun city.

For more info: El Paso Zoo, 4001 E. Paisano El Paso, Texas, 915-521-1850. 96 Elephants Campaign, http://www.96elephants.org. Video of El Paso Zoo stars -- "Our animals couldn't hold their licker!"

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