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While the ethics of holding animals in captivity is a hotly debated topic, the Smithsonian’s Elephant Trails community is a great case study for the benefits of zoos. The spacious elephant barn is designed to the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) standards for elephant care, which sets requirements for space, enclosure, design, nutrition, reproduction, enrichment, and veterinary care. Zookeepers and veterinarians work tirelessly to give the elephants a quality living environment, creating individualized diets for each animal, and providing daily mental and physical stimulation. The Zoo’s herd helps advance the Smithsonian’s research goals as well as educate and inspire the public to join conservation efforts to save the endangered species.

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Related: Poachers have killed half the elephants in Mozambique in the last five years

More than just a thoughtfully designed home for elephants, the 8,943-square-meter Elephant Trails complex is designed to LEED Gold standards and is built on the bones of the historic 1937 building. Many historic elements, such as the original floor medallions, were preserved. Environmentally friendly and non-toxic site materials, such as steel with recycled content, were incorporated. Topped with a green roof, the main two-story building comprises a central elephant “living room” for herd socialization that’s lined with soft sand; elephant “suites” with rubber floors (and one with a 4-foot-deep sand floor) that accommodate 8 to 12 elephants in total; offices and a conference room on the second floor; and access to a large outdoor landscaped space with multiple elephant pools and a quarter-mile exercise trail. The elephants, which are adaptable to cold temperatures, have the freedom to choose between the indoors and outdoors.

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Nearly thirty underground geothermal wells, each hundreds of feet deep, heat and cool the building. Conventional air conditioning is not needed anywhere in the building except in the offices. The geothermal pipes pump heat to the concrete slabs, which transfer warmth to the sand, keeping the soft ground at a comfortable ambient temperature year-round. A steam system augments geothermal heating. Operable skylights maximize natural lighting and ventilation, and are automated to close in rainy weather. A greywater system filters and reuses elephant pool water and other water onsite to reduce waste. A highly efficient 150-gallon steam-powered hot water tank replaced the former 4,000-gallon electricity-fed water tank. Trash is separated from compost, which includes animal waste, before disposal.

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Related: Zootopia: BIG Unveils Bold Plan to Build the World’s Most Animal-Friendly Zoo

Educational signage and interactive exhibits are located throughout the Elephant Trails complex to inspire visitors to celebrate, protect, and conserve the Asian elephants. The public is also invited to learn how zookeepers and National Zoo scientists are caring for the animals and their ongoing efforts to save elephants both in the zoo and in the wild.

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While the eco-friendly Elephant Trails is impressive, the Smithsonian Institute hasn’t stopped there when it comes to LEED certification. Many other museums and facilities, such as the upcoming National Museum of African American History and Culture, have met or will pursue LEED certification. These achievements not only help reduce their environmental footprint, but can also save taxpayer money in the long run.

+ Asian Elephants at the National Zoo

+ Greenbuild 2015 coverage on Inhabitat

Images © Lucy Wang