Photo of Zoo Director Dan Maloney and African elephant Mikki

Director Dan Maloney and African elephant Mikki

Originally printed as “The Elephant in the Room” from the Spring 2024 issue of Trunkline Magazine

For more than 50 years, Louisville Zoo guests have been delighted and awed by the elephants in our care.

We currently feature only two females — Asian elephant, Punch, arrived in 1973, and African elephant, Mikki, followed in 1987. These beloved giants have inspired us daily to live in better balance with our planet and protect the wildlife that share it with us.

However, like many other institutions, our Zoo has arrived at the crossroads of tradition and reality. The gap continues to widen between what we can realistically provide our aging elephants and the clearer understanding we have of their needs. Over the past half-century, our recognition of the species’ complex social structure has evolved dramatically. An experienced matriarch typically leads a herd comprised of her aunts, her sisters, her daughters, her nieces, her young sons, and even her grandchildren. If enough resources are available, elephant herds can contain dozens of individuals.

Recent events, including the loss of Mikki’s young son, Fitz, to the insidious elephant herpes virus, have prompted us to reassess the dynamics of our elephant duo — which now falls below the minimum herd size mandated by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA). Punch, at 53, is considered geriatric and Mikki, at 37, is gracefully entering her senior years. For every resident animal, we create a care plan for all stages of their life. We have reached the point where it is imperative that we secure a place for Mikki and Punch where the bonded pair are both able to retire together, and that their complex social needs are met through the end of their lives.

With a limited window of opportunity available, we have made the tough decision to plan for their relocation to The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee, which is AZA-accredited and the nation’s largest natural-habitat elephant refuge. This sanctuary was developed specifically to care for aging elephants and provide them with the companionship of a herd. This relocation will ensure that Punch and Mikki receive the highest standard of care, consistent with the level they are accustomed to in Louisville.

Animal management standards are ever evolving. This shift in elephant care mirrors the journey of AZA-accredited zoos decades ago to redefine the state of gorillas in human care. While that shift represented substantial changes for many zoos, it significantly enhanced the overall quality of life for great apes in zoos and led to the creation of Gorilla Forest here at the Louisville Zoo.
We are proud to support cooperative efforts to ensure the best environment for elephants
in AZA-accredited care. Moving forward, we are committed to maintaining the strong emotional bonds our community shares with our elephants and wild elephants worldwide.

Your Zoo will share regular updates on Mikki and Punch in their new home, while continuing to support elephant conservation organizations.

To provide our community with ample time to visit with Mikki and Punch, their move is intended for early 2025. Starting now, the Louisville Zoo animal care team will begin acclimating Punch and Mikki to the transportation process. You may see a large crate in the elephant habitat that will be incorporated into training exercises as we prepare for their eventual move.

While this change means that the Louisville Zoo will be without elephants for some time, it also presents an opportunity for transformation. The elephant enclosure will be repurposed into a bigger habitat for our rhinos, Sindi and Letterman. This will provide us the space to potentially welcome a new species for Louisville Zoo — okapi, the rare and remarkable forest giraffe.

For future master planning, we will consider a new, larger and more accommodating elephant habitat with greater space, additional shade and the capability to hold a multi-generational herd. However, we approach this vision with the utmost responsibility, taking into account the high capital costs for an updated, modern elephant exhibit (currently estimated at more than $100 million) and potential impacts on other essential Zoo projects.

In the next few years, visitors can look forward to an exciting $40 million expansion — the largest capital campaign in Louisville Zoo history — featuring wildlife native to the Kentucky and Indiana region including bison, elk, bobcats and many more.

Such decisions, especially those involving iconic species like elephants, are made with the utmost care and consideration. It is our continued pledge to always uphold the highest standards of animal wellbeing. Change, especially in matters so close to the heart, is met with a mix of emotions. I want to express my deepest gratitude for your understanding and support as we embark together on this journey toward ensuring the best possible future for Punch, Mikki and all your Zoo’s residents.

See you soon at the Zoo,

Dan Maloney
Louisville Zoo Director