Hogle's elephant calf 'a ton of energy'

Media day » Baby appears unfazed by clicking of cameras.
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She's a sprightly little thing -- all 250-plus pounds of her.

Hogle Zoo's petite pachyderm broke from her mother's side like a greyhound from the gate Tuesday. Kicking up dust and hay, losing her footing a few times, she made a pass around her pen before settling under her mother's sagging gray belly.

And then she did it all again.

Displaying a flair for showmanship that will undoubtedly make her the star of Hogle Zoo's menagerie for months -- if not years -- to come, the month-old elephant calf made her media debut Tuesday morning. She appeared unfazed by the clicks and snaps of a half-dozen cameras -- a good sign that she's ready for her adoring public, zoo officials said.

One key moment of proof comes Thursday evening at the annual Zoo Rendezvous, an exclusive $150-a-person fundraising event in which donors are offered a peek at the calf. The next test comes the next morning when the public will get its first glimpse of the baby, the first elephant born in Utah in more than 90 years. The calf -- the youngest African elephant in the United States -- doesn't yet have a name. A contest to name the big little one runs through Sunday.

For now, though, you might just call her Exuberance.

"She's like this every morning," said Doug Tomkinson, the zoo's lead elephant keeper. "She has a ton of energy."

Tomkinson said the calf hasn't grown more than an inch or two since she was born Aug. 10, and "she might have put on 20 or 30 pounds, but that's about it."

She's eating plenty, he said, but she's also getting plenty of exercise. "She's healthy," he said, and for Tomkinson and his fellow elephant keepers, that's the most important thing.

Over the past few weeks, as Christie and her calf have been given time to stroll around the yard in the mornings before the Salt Lake animal park's regular 9 a.m. opening, zoo staff have been arriving early to watch the baby play.

"She's pretty popular around here," said zoo spokeswoman Holly Braithwaite.

The zoo fell just short of the 1-million-visitor mark last year and is now sitting at the precipice of an $11 million fundraising goal that would unlock an additional $33 million in public cash. So zoo officials are hoping the calf's popularity will help loosen purses and sell tickets, too.

Although the zoo has announced annual attendance gains for most of the past decade, the number of visitors has not kept up with the explosive growth in Salt Lake County and surrounding areas over the same period. Speaking to that issue last year, zoo Director Craig Dinsmore argued that the zoo doesn't "progress as a percentage of population; we plot it through the success of our programs."

But Dinsmore also acknowledged the importance of ticket sales to the zoo's overall growth strategy and expressed hope that families staying close to home in tight economic times would spend a greater share of their entertainment budgets at the Salt Lake City park.

The nationwide recession has also made fundraising tough. The zoo needs $300,000 more to secure the bond, approved by county voters in January.