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Moving Toledo Zoo's elephant a giant task

Zoo ensuring Louie’s transport will be as comfortable as possible

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    Elephant keeper Dave Ross trains Louie to get used to his travel crate at the Toledo Zoo. Louie will be transferred to Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo sometime this fall, and zookeepers are preparing him for the trip.

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    Louie gets used to his travel crate at the Toledo Zoo. Louie will be transferred to Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo. Workers at both zoos are preparing for his transport.

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Planning a cross-country family trip can be complicated enough, let alone hitting the road with a 6,000-pound, 9-foot-tall animal and an extensive entourage.

So, how do you move an elephant?

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Louie gets used to his travel crate at the Toledo Zoo. Louie will be transferred to Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo. Workers at both zoos are preparing for his transport.

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“Very carefully, with a lot of logistics and planning,” said Terry Webb, director of animal programs at the Toledo Zoo.

Louie, the zoo’s 14-year-old African elephant bull, will soon be headed to Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium. Both facilities are knee-deep in preparations for getting the pachyderm from Point A to Point B.

There are a lot of moving parts to manage with any animal transfer, Mr. Webb said. Jumbo-sized creatures present numerous additional challenges.

A $38,000, 17,000-pound steel transport crate, built from scratch in Omaha, had to be inspected and approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Transportation before it was shipped to Toledo. It arrived June 7 and has been attached to the back of the zoo’s elephant barn.

Louie’s caretakers are slowly acclimating him to it with the help of reward-based training. He has been completely unperturbed by the structure since being introduced to it last weekend.

“He’s just not intimidated by much of anything,” elephant manager Ben Whitebread said. “When we opened the door for the first time ... I was not surprised at all that he went all the way in without much thought.”

VIDEO: Louie the Elephant gets accustomed to his crate

Louie trains twice daily in the crate. Keepers are building up the amount of time he spends inside. They will also acclimate him to the access doors opening and closing, steel barrier bars sliding in and out of place, and seeing people and vehicles outside the crate.

Everything is being done at Louie’s pace, Mr. Whitebread said. He has breezed through the process so far.

While Louie trains, Mr. Webb is ensuring all necessary paperwork is completed. Louie will travel with an interstate health certificate and all of his medical records, as well as an entry permit for the state of Nebraska.

n2louie-jpg

Elephant keeper Dave Ross trains Louie to get used to his travel crate at the Toledo Zoo. Louie will be transferred to Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo sometime this fall, and zookeepers are preparing him for the trip.

THE BLADE/LORI KING
Enlarge | Buy This Image

Other states along the route — Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa — told the zoo they do not need entry permits there, but Mr. Webb will verify that again before Louie departs.

The zoo has contacted other Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facilities along the route. They have agreed to provide aid should a serious situation arise during the trip.

Once keepers are certain Louie is comfortable with the transport crate, the zoo will look at the weather forecast and pick a departure date. The crate is well-ventilated and will have a cooling unit attached, but Louie will not travel if temperatures exceed 85 degrees anywhere along the route. Travel will occur overnight.

“It gives us a bigger window of time to look at transferring him,” Mr. Webb said. “And we’ll have less traffic and it’s cooler.”

The crate, with Louie inside, will be loaded onto a lowboy semi-trailer by a contractor specializing in moving large, heavy objects. A rented crane will handle unloading in Omaha.

The zoo expects the roughly 700-mile trip to take about 14 hours with several breaks along the way. Louie will have space to shift around inside his crate, but will not be able to turn. He likely won’t lie down, Mr. Whitebread said.

“It is absolutely natural for elephants to be on their feet as long as he will be for this trip,” he said.

The trip will include stops at least every four hours, more frequently if needed, to examine Louie. He will be offered hay, treats, and a drink at each stop.

Mr. Whitebread said the transport truck will be accompanied by two vehicles carrying more than twice the amount of supplies needed for the trip. In addition to water, the crew will be able to mix buckets of Gatorade — fruit-punch flavored, the only kind Louie likes — for its added electrolytes.

Staff in one of the support vehicles will monitor a live video feed from a security camera mounted in Louie’s crate.

“We’re going to be able to watch him and see what he’s doing,” Mr. Whitebread said. “If we notice something doesn’t seem right, we’ll stop.”

Louie’s human entourage will include a Toledo Zoo veterinarian, Mr. Whitebread, the elephant manager from Omaha, and others who will rotate driving duties and provide support along the way.

Mr. Whitebread said the convoy will keep its distance from other travelers as much as possible when it stops. Louie’s crate is unmarked and it will be difficult to see him inside, but the transportation team is prepared to manage any curious passers-by as needed.

“We’ll stay as low-key as we can,” Mr. Whitebread said.

Once Louie arrives in Omaha, he’ll be unloaded from the trailer and allowed to walk out of his crate into a chute leading to that zoo’s elephant barn.

“Sometimes what happens is you open the door and they don’t want to come out because they’re comfortable,” Doorly Zoo President and CEO Dennis Pate said.

Everything outside the crate will be new for Louie, he said. Some animals have no trouble walking out right away, while others need a little time to think about it first.

“In that case, it’s our job to just be patient,” Mr. Pate said. Seeing his familiar Toledo keepers should help, he added.

Louie will be tired, Mr. Pate said. Staff will make sure he finds water and feed, and veterinarians will look him over. He’ll be closely observed for any potential issues during a standard quarantine.

“We’ll make sure he’s eating here, moving normally, behaving normally,” Mr. Pate said. “We’ll track how he’s doing.”

Toledo staff will remain in Omaha for awhile to help Louie adjust to his new home.

“I’ll stay on for several days there to help train their staff and tell them everything I possibly can that I’ve learned about Louie the last almost 13 years,” Mr. Whitebread said.

As the receiving institution, the Omaha zoo is handling the cost of Louie’s move, as is traditional with animal transfers between facilities. The Toledo Zoo will retain ownership of the elephant.

Contact Alexandra Mester: amester@theblade.com, 419-724-6066, or on Twitter @AlexMesterBlade.

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