BEYOND THE BANKS: Riverbanks’ last elephant gears up for big move, zoo officials announce what’s next for the exhibit

Updated: Sep. 26, 2019 at 9:28 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - In the back of Riverbanks Zoo and Garden, there’s a metal box at least twice the size of a U-Haul truck. And it’s designed to transport an elephant.

Behind the elephant enclosure, zookeepers are working with the zoo’s remaining African elephant, 38-year-old Belle, to get her ready for a big move.

Last month, the zoo announced the passing of its oldest elephant, Robin, who died peacefully at the age of 49. The two elephants were supposed to make the journey together. But Robin’s passing only solidified the importance of Belle’s imminent leap of faith.

“Living to be 49 years old, she lived a great life, a very healthy life,” said John Davis, the Director of Animal Care and Welfare at Riverbanks Zoo.

According to Davis, Robin passed away peacefully with Belle by her side. He said they came in one morning and while Belle came in off the exhibit, Robin did not respond. That’s when they knew she was gone.

“Everybody took that time to make sure we took care of each other and that meant taking care of Belle, too,” said Andrea Mueller, the elephant manager at Riverbanks Zoo.

Mueller has been with Belle since the exhibit opened in 2001. For 18 years, she has worked with the African elephant on all types of training and command work, but this is new territory they’re now entering: getting an elephant inside a transport container destined for the Milwaukee County Zoo.

“Elephants are very social animals. They need one another,” said Davis. “And while humans can stimulate them and take good care of them, they need other elephants to socialize. We know this decision is absolutely right and we are making it for the elephant, specifically Belle's wellbeing.”

Belle will join a new herd at the Milwaukee County Zoo. It’s a move keepers believe is right for the remaining elephant but one that doesn’t come without a little bit of sadness and nostalgia. Mueller is working with Belle at her pace, making sure she is comfortable every step of the way and with each footstep in and out of the container. They work a couple times a day going in and out of the container. Once Belle is done, Mueller generally knows and rewards her for the hard work.

“It will definitely be a transition for us as a team that has worked with the elephants since they’ve been here,” said Mueller. “But as John said, it is important that Belle has herd mates and, obviously with Robin’s passing, it shows us that we made the right decision.”

Once Belle is moved to her new home, the zoo will transform the elephant exhibit into a rhinoceros exhibit. At this point, there’s no timetable for when that could happen.

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