Mastadon’s Manor: Honolulu Elephants Get Room to Roam

Honolulu zoo director Manuel Mollinedo swears their elephants lost some weight since moving to a new exhibit about a month ago. The spacious new home on the Diamond Head side of the zoo is about 1.5 acres and nine times larger than their previous zoo dwelling, offering more room for some Elephant Exercise.

Manuel shares his favorite elephant stories during closing time at the zoo.

While caretakers insist Mari and Vaigai weigh the same as they always did, LMFAO’s popular hip hop song comes to mind:

“Girl look at the body…Work out.”

And Mari and Vaigai have been doing just that, with two 55,000-gallon pools to tread in and lots of mock African Savanna terrain to roam. You’d think they’d been pumping iron with how their inner leg muscles and triumphant trunks are looking trim and toned. Maybe they don’t actually pump iron, but they do suck up lots of dirt and grass from the ground – which is then pumped forcefully onto their backs with the help of their trunks.The girls get an authentic Indian welcome, chalk drawings and all. As shown, they cut the “maile” in their honor.

The two female beauties from India immediately took to their sweet new pad – Mari deep in dirt and Vaigai deep in the refreshing pool on their first day. It’s a luxurious style of living that cost the city $12 million to put together; an investment Manuel said will serve the zoo for years to come. Also included, a 7,260-square-foot holding pen that provides ample room for emergency and after-hour care.

Mari, born in 1975, and Vaigai, born in 1985, were gifted to the zoo by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi through the efforts of David and Sheila Watumull.

“I hate to anthropomorphize animals, but to me, it just appears that they’re much happier with this new environment,” Manuel said, shrugging his shoulders with a faint smile.

VIDEO: Manuel talks elephants and about some of the many zoo improvements.

I got to spend a few hours with Manuel during a private tour of the zoo, and I can honestly say, he’s got a passion for his establishment h3er than the elephants have for rolling in dirt after a nice bath, a favorite way of teasing their caretakers. It’s like Manuel has a connection of sorts with the animals, referring to them as if they were old-time buddies. As the setting sun cast shadows over the zoo and the animals trickled off to bed, Manuel charged full force through each exhibit, telling me everything about a leamer’s eating habits to the near extinction of a rare crocodile called the gharial. He was like a walking A-Z animal encyclopedia.

Since Manuel stepped in as director a year ago, the Honolulu Zoo has seen vast improvements. Most were in the works before Manuel’s arrival but finally came to fruitrition under his direction. A new and improved entrance area and gift shop welcome visitors while the colorful maps and signage throughout help zoo-goers to easily navigate from one continental terrain to another. He has big dreams, too, with plans to breed a few of their animals and to bring in additional ones – like Malaysian tapirs, which may take over the elephants’ old dwelling.Peacocks and crocodiles kept us company on our afternoon stroll through the zoo.

As we rounded the corner of the giraffe and zebra exhibit, I had to ask him straight out what had been bugging me the whole time, “Are you guys ever bringing back the giraffe viewing tower?” Trying not to sound too whiny.

He stopped in his tracks and chuckled, “That was a while ago! You don’t look old enough to remember that.”

But I assured him. I remembered, alright! I went on to tell him just how sad I was as a kid when I found out they removed the tower, where one could see eye-to-eye with the giraffes. That, and the concrete hippo statues I climbed on, were the main reasons I dragged my parents to the zoo many a weekend. I squealed with childish excitement every time the giraffe’s long black tongue spiraled toward me before finally plucking the leaves out of my hand. I just loved it.

Manuel listened intently, nodding. “Here, let me show you.” And he took me to the exact spot they planned to one day install a platform feeding area. “I’ll be sure to call you when it’s done.”

That couldn’t have been a nicer way to end my tour of the zoo. First those adorable elephants, followed by a promise to my personal request from Mr. Zoo, himself.

Photo Credit (second photo): City & County of Honolulu

HONOLULU ZOO • 151 Kapahulu Ave., Honolulu, HI 96815 • Open 9am-430pm daily, closed Christmas Day • 808-971-7171 • • See site for admission fees • Metered parking available; Near bus route

Posted by: Bruce Fisher