Woodland Park Zoo's Elephant Forest exhibit, part of the Tropical Asia exhibit zone, is the 1990 winner of Best Exhibit by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA).
The exhibit takes into account the need for indoor areas (the Thai–themed, heated elephant barn), and outdoor spaces with different grades and types of surfaces. The Elephant Forest also includes a large pool that the elephants are able to swim in during warmer times of the year.
The elephant herd has outdoor access 365 days a year. Most of the year, elephants are generally given free choice to outdoor access 23 hours a day, while approximately an hour is spent in the barn for routine baths, training and husbandry procedures. Because of Seattle's mild climate, our elephants roam their outdoor area year round – walking, foraging, playing and exploring.
Regardless of weather, they often choose to be inside the barn. This is because the elephants view the barn as "home," and are comfortable there, interacting closely with the keepers. It is a favorite spot, much like a favorite room or chair for people or pets at home.
In the winter, their time indoors is weather dependent. During inclement weather, they may choose to spend longer periods in the barn. In compliance with AZA's standards for elephant care, elephants are held in the heated barn only rarely, such as when temperatures are below 40 degrees F.
The Elephant Forest includes ample outdoor space for the elephants, which provides a variety of substrates and features. Most of the dirt areas are regularly tilled and re–graded twice a year, offering the elephants plenty of dirt for dirt baths.
The barn has four separate holding areas. All areas in the barn that are accessible to the elephants have special rubberized flooring that makes for a surface that "gives" to their weight.
The elephants have trails to follow and explore, soft dirt and grass to walk on and graze; trees to browse from during spring and summer, and leaves to collect in the fall much like their cousins in the wild.
The outdoor pool holds approximately 30,000 gallons of water, is 11 feet deep and contains a waterfall that is filtered to keep it pure.
Indoor showerheads are located in the barn with water heated to a comfortable temperature for elephant bathing.
Radiant heat in the barn allows elephant doors to be left open without excessive heat loss and allows the elephants to have indoor⁄outdoor access as they see fit.
An interior protective wall features nine panels that can be opened independently, or in combination with each other, to allow keepers and veterinarians highly protected access to every part of an elephant's body. Adjustable footrests accommodate elephants of any size for pedicures and large slots allow them to present their ears for safe blood draws.
Four hydraulic can gates divide the exhibit into four separate enclosures and a staging paddock. The gates allow the keepers maximum flexibility in managing a behaviorally dynamic herd from a protected position outside the exhibit.