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Young elephants wallow at Zoo's new 'club mud'

Lily the elephant enjoys a mud bath at the Oregon Zoo.
Lily the elephant enjoys a mud bath at the Oregon Zoo.
Photo by Michael Durham, courtesy of the Oregon Zoo.

As work continues on the Oregon Zoo’s expansive new Elephant Lands habitat, one thing is as clear as mud: Elephants — especially young elephants — love to wallow in the sticky stuff.

Samudra, who turns 6 this month, and his 1-year-old sister, Lily, have been spending much of their summer rolling, splashing and playing in the mud in the zoo’s recently completed Encounter Habitat — while their mom, Rose-Tu, along with aunties Shine and Chendra, look on from safely out of splashing range.

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“You can see how much fun they’re having, romping around, climbing over each other and squirting each other with their trunks,” said animal curator Bob Lee, who oversees the zoo’s elephant program. “But mud baths also serve an important purpose. On warm summer days, they cool the elephants off and provide a protective coating to shield their skin from harmful UV rays. A lot of people don’t realize it, but elephants can get sunburned just like us — especially the youngsters, who have more sensitive skin.”

Just to the north of Sam and Lily’s muddy romp, crews continued work on the zoo’s expansive new Elephant Lands habitat, where the variety of terrains will include hills, meadows, elephant-size swimming pools and, yes, mud wallows.

Planning for the expansive, naturalistic Elephant Lands reached a truly granular level over the past year, as designers researched, sampled and tested a variety of sands before settling on a just-right “Goldilocks” type deemed optimal for elephants. While much of the habitat is at least four feet deep in sand, care was taken to include some areas of harder-packed dirt that the elephants could dig up to create wallows.

Elephant Lands — the fourth of eight major projects funded by a community-supported 2008 bond measure — is a sweeping expansion of the zoo’s Asian elephant habitat that will quadruple the animals’ space and dramatically enhance their daily experiences. Work on the new habitat, which has been carefully sequenced to gradually expand the elephants’ accessible space in phases, will be completed in the fall of 2015.

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The Oregon Zoo is recognized worldwide for its Asian elephant program, which has spanned more than 50 years. Considered highly endangered in their range countries, Asian elephants are threatened by habitat loss, conflict with humans and disease. It is estimated that fewer than 40,000 elephants remain in fragmented populations from India to Borneo. Through the International Elephant Foundation and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the zoo supports a broad range of elephant conservation efforts to help wild elephants.

In January, the zoo ramped up efforts to combat the illegal ivory trade by partnering with the Wildlife Conservation Society on its recently launched 96 Elephants campaign. And last month, the zoo launched it Use Your Reach project to help break the link between palm oil and deforestation in Asian elephant range countries.

The zoo is a service of Metro and is dedicated to its mission of inspiring the community to create a better future for wildlife. Committed to conservation, the zoo is currently working to save endangered California condors, Oregon silverspot and Taylor’s checkerspot butterflies, western pond turtles and Oregon spotted frogs. Other projects include studies on Asian elephants, polar bears, orangutans and giant pandas. The zoo relies in part on donations through the Oregon Zoo Foundation to undertake these and many other animal welfare, education and sustainability programs.

The zoo opens at 9 a.m. daily and is located five minutes from downtown Portland, just off Highway 26. The zoo is also accessible by MAX light rail line. Visitors who travel to the zoo via MAX receive $1.50 off zoo admission. Call TriMet Customer Service, 503-238-RIDE (7433), or visit for fare and route information.

General zoo admission is $11.50 (ages 12-64), $10 for seniors (65 and up), $8.50 for children (ages 3-11) and free for those 2 and younger. Additional information is available at or by calling 503-226-1561.

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