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Kansas zoo builds fence to protect its elderly elephants

Stephanie and Cinda are no spring chickens.

The truth of the matter is that the zoo's two South African bush elephants are close to 40 years old — old by elephant standards.

So, Stephanie and Cinda's exhibit at the Sedgwick County Zoo is about to get a new look — and some visitors may not like it.

It's a safety issue for the aging elephants, the zoo says.

Work began this week to replace the moat in the exhibit with an 8-foot-tall post-and-cable fence.

Zoo officials are concerned that the elephants, who like to stretch their trunks out for treats and grass on the other side, could lose their balance and fall into the moat.

"With each passing day and year this balancing act becomes more nerve-racking for our zookeepers," said Mark Reed, director of the Sedgwick County Zoo. "All it would take is one misstep and we could have a dangerous situation for our elephants."

Although zoo officials have plans to build a new, much larger elephant exhibit — with additional elephants, construction most likely won't begin until the local and national economy significantly improve, Reed said. In the meantime the fence, which should be completed by mid-March, will help keep the elephants safe.

On Thursday, the elephants, their zookeepers and Reed talked about the exhibit — 1,900 square feet of space — and the elephants who have been at the zoo since the fall of 1972.

"There is no question these are our two most noted animals," Reed said. "If we did not have elephants here, we would not be able to raise the kind of money we do for conservation programs. They are the classic umbrella species. By saving elephants and elephant habitat, we are saving all sorts of other animals."

As elephants age, "They have the same issues we do — stiff joints and arthritis," said zookeeper Norma Gheen. "Our girls are on an exercise program that we follow daily with them."

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