Denver Zoo Map
May 1, 2014

Throwback Thursday - Dolly the Asian Elephant

This summer Denver Zoo will host the silver anniversary celebration of Do At The Zoo, presented this year by Anadarko Petroleum Corporation. We are honoring the last 25 years with today’s Throwback Thursday blog about longtime Zoo resident, Dolly the Asian elephant. Generations of visitors to Denver Zoo have been awed by Dolly during their trips to Denver Zoo.

Although Dolly has been a full-time resident of Denver Zoo for 25 years, her life before the Zoo includes some mysteries. Denver Zoo records assume that Dolly was born in approximately 1964 in the wild. For many years, little was known of Dolly’s early years, but following some detective work by Curator of Toyota Elephant Passage Dale Leeds, we may now know where she grew up. After talking with some others in the field, Dale found some photos of an elephant known as Dolly who was at the Weed Park Zoo in Muscatine, Iowa from 1966 until it closed in 1980. By looking at some unique features of Dolly’s trunk, Dale feels confident (well, 99.9% confident), that the Weed Park Zoo’s Dolly the elephant is the same Dolly that now lives at Denver Zoo.

The first time Dolly shows up in the official records is 1984 when she was noted to be in Littlerock, Arkansas. She traveled across the country with a private individual giving rides to the public. For a time Dolly gave rides to visitors to Denver Zoo (something that was common at the time, but that you won’t find at Denver Zoo today). Denver Zoo was able to purchase Dolly in 1990 and she officially retired from the ride business.

Denver Zoo’s Commitment to Elephants

Elephants have been a favorite animal for Zoo visitors since the arrival of Cookie the Asian elephant in 1950. Cookie lived in the City Park Pump House until the new Pachyderm Building was built in 1959, when she was joined by another Asian elephant, Candy. Mimi, also an Asian elephant, arrived at Denver Zoo in 1961. Cookie passed away in 1985 and Candy died in 2001.

Dolly and Mimi spent the following years charming Zoo visitors during daily shows at the Pachyderm Building. On many days people would pack several rows deep to watch the two work through their training demonstrations. With the guidance of their zookeepers, the two participated in demonstrations like how to recycle by smashing bottles and placing them in recycle bins, educated kids about the importance of good nutrition and ways to help save the environment for elephants in the wild.

Together, Dolly and Mimi became the face of the campaign to raise funds for the Zoo’s next major capital project, Toyota Elephant Passage. Many people contributed to the campaign in honor of Mimi and Dolly because of the promise of the enhanced exhibit for the two that included more space, a bigger barn and sophisticated animal care equipment. While the landmark exhibit was still under construction, Dolly and Mimi began training for the short trip that would transport them to their beautiful new home. They learned to walk into specially designed crates and stand comfortably until asked to back out. On the day of their move, they walked in and were then secured before the crates were moved by a crane onto a waiting truck bed. Because of the dedicated training regimen, the move went very well and Dolly and Mimi quickly began exploring their new home. 

Toyota Elephant Passage, built in part with funds from Do At The Zoo, boasts two miles of interconnected trails on 10 acres of varied terrain through five expansive rotational yards and a spacious new elephant barn. The added space also allowed Denver Zoo more room for additional elephants, and was specifically designed to meet the needs of male elephants, that are bigger and stronger than the females. Since the opening of the exhibit, three male elephants have joined the herd, 43-year-old Groucho, 9-year-old Bodhi and 6-year-old Billy. Mimi passed away in 2012 at the age of 53, and a new female elephant, 44-year-old Kimbo, came to Denver to be a companion for Dolly.

A lot has changed regarding elephant care at Denver Zoo in the past 25 years. Elephant rides are a thing of the past. Zookeepers now work the elephants in what is called protected contact, where there is always a protective barrier between the keeper and the elephant. Because of this, the Zoo’s use of positive reinforcement in our training programs becomes even more important. Each elephant only participates when they want to. They are asked to shift from one area to another, they are asked to be part of demonstrations and they are asked to present themselves for health care needs. The quality of the relationships that are built between keeper and animal because of the use of positive reinforcement is clear through the willingness of the animal to choose to participate.

While we don’t know what the next 25 years will bring, we do know that Denver Zoo will always look for ways to continue to improve our ability to care for all of the animals, including the graceful, awe-inspiring Asian elephants that live at Denver Zoo. Our dedication to excellence in animal care will be a constant, and our commitment to secure a better world for animals through human understanding will continue. We are proud of the work we do every day, to support the animals, like Dolly the elephant, who make our work worthwhile. 

Top photo: Asian elephants Mimi, Candy and Dolly in the Pachyderm Building, circa 1992

Bottom photo: Asian elephant Dolly

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