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Golden shovels were on hand, but the Oregon Zoo broke ground today elephant-style: with a 30-ton excavator.

Construction of the 6.25-acre Elephant Lands habitat — the most ambitious project in Oregon Zoo history — officially kicked off with massive displacement of earth, making way for the Asian elephant herd’s new home and a new era of animal welfare.

“We’ve designed a world-class home that honors this amazing species,” said Kim Smith, zoo director. “Elephant Lands is all about elephants having choices and activity. We think it’s going to be a game-changer for elephants worldwide and help raise the bar for animal welfare.”

 Five years in the making, the $53 million habitat — part of the community-supported zoo bond measure — will extend around the eastern edge of the zoo, from south of the current elephant habitat north into the area that formerly housed Elk Meadow.

“We started in 2008 by surveying the best elephant habitats in the world,” said Mike Keele, the zoo’s director of elephant habitats and one of the foremost Asian elephant experts in the country. “We took the best elements from each of those, and then we added our own half-century of elephant experience to give Packy, Lily and the rest of the herd everything they need to thrive.” 

For Keele the groundbreaking is especially meaningful: “To know how far we have come — how much we’ve learned over the years about elephants and their complex needs — and now to be able to pour all that knowledge into this project that will make their lives that much better."

With rolling meadows, 4-foot-deep sand flooring and one of the world’s largest indoor elephant facilities, the new habitat will also offer unique views of the zoo’s herd. Within Forest Hall, visitors on elevated walkways will view elephants within a vast airy arena lit by filtered sunlight with a backdrop of native fir forest.