A Rosie Future for Homeless Big Top Behemoths

Sunday, April 01, 2018
An elephant standing behind a fence with a sign that reads "Please do not feed the elephants."

The Elephant in the Womb: A pregnant pachyderm is one of two dozen new residents at the institute's elephant sanctuary, on the former Hulman family property near campus. The project was inspired by the school’s longtime mascot, Rosie.

They say an elephant never forgets, and for two dozen lucky pachyderms future memories are going to be much brighter thanks to Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. The college, long known for its reputation as the country’s best undergraduate engineering school, will be repurposing some recently acquired acreage from a horse haven to an elephant sanctuary.

Last August, Rose-Hulman announced the acquisition of more than 1,100 acres just south of campus from the extended Anton “Tony” and Mary Fendrich Hulman family, which continued their longstanding relationship with the institute.

In a related blog post on terrehaute.com, President Jim Conwell said the property “offers an endless realm of possibilities” for the institute and its students. Now, the first of those possibilities is coming to light.

A perimeter fencing upgrade to accommodate the new residents is nearly complete, with the first animals expected to arrive via specially equipped Elephant Air Rescue transport planes to the nearby Terre Haute Regional Airport later this week.

From there, they’ll be walked across State Road 42 to their accommodations, according to the institute’s new director of elephant research and rehabilitation, Dr. Ella Fonte. The move will require a brief closure of the highway, but Fonte says it’s much less stressful for the pachyderms than a truck transport.

The project was inspired by the school’s longtime mascot, Rosie the Elephant. But the animals aren’t the only beneficiaries of the initiative—engineering students will use the skills they’ve learned in the classroom to design special jumbo exercise equipment, an elephant-optimized biosphere that mimics the climate of sub-Saharan Africa, and super-sized assistive devices for two of the creatures whose circus careers left them with mobility issues.

Biology and chemistry students are already working to formulate special snacks, called “Trunk Treats” that will provide dietary variety and enhance nutrition, while taking into account that at least one of the elephants suffers from a peanut allergy.

It’s not a huge leap from some of the projects students have done in the past, Fonte explained. “Student teams have done humanitarian engineering projects for years—these are similar, but obviously they’ll be scaled up to mammoth proportions.”

The circus industry has been in decline of late, and big top icon Ringling Bros. recently pulled the plug after 146 years touring as “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Rehoming large animals, such as elephants, has been a challenge because most zoos’ elephant habitats are already at capacity.

“We saw an opportunity to utilize this expansive property and some of the existing structures to make a difference for these animals, while giving our students and faculty a unique academic experience,” Fonte said.

Adding to the excitement is the fact that one of the elephants is pregnant. The institute is inviting the public to join the campus community in submitting ideas for the baby’s name. Suggestions will be taken from now until April 31. Check out the current top five names and submit your suggestion.

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