Laura Newell: We’ll savour our elephant walks while we still have them

Headshot of Laura Newell
Laura NewellThe West Australian
Planning has commenced to send Perth Zoo’s two Asian Elephants, Permai (pictured) and Putra Mas, to their ‘forever home’ in South Australia in late 2024.
Camera IconPlanning has commenced to send Perth Zoo’s two Asian Elephants, Permai (pictured) and Putra Mas, to their ‘forever home’ in South Australia in late 2024. Credit: Kelsey Reid/The West Australian

Swinging her arm from side to side in front of her head as if it is a trunk, Miss 6 sings at the top of her voice as she runs up the hill towards Perth Zoo’s elephant enclosure: “Hup! Two! Three! Four!”

Her father and I trail behind, laughing at her enthusiastic, if not terribly tuneful, rendition of one of Disney’s the Jungle Book’s most famous tunes.

We’re heading to see our elephant-loving daughter’s beloved local pachyderms, Permai and Putra Mas, and she couldn’t be more excited. They are always the first stop on any zoo pilgrimage.

As we arrive at the amphitheatre, which sits just outside their enclosures, she springs down the steps and heads straight to the fence, partitioning humans from elephants and stares. And stares. And stares. Permai is in the main enclosure, padding at greenery as she waits for her keeper to finish an element of her care. Our daughter is captivated by the huge mammal.

As I join her, Miss 6 whispers to me: “Do you think she’s sad to be leaving?”

We’ve been warning our girl for the past three years — since the loss of elephant matriarch Tricia — that we were on borrowed time when it came to visits to the remaining duo, as they are destined to move to Monarto Safari Park in South Australia.

A zoo spokeswoman put it best this week, saying it would be a bittersweet farewell: “Our elephants deserve the very best, and we believe the new herd and habitat at Monarto Safari Park will give them just that.”

Based in the city, with our modern understanding of animal welfare, it’s clear to anyone who visits that the elephants simply can’t be given the sort of space and company they really need here in Perth. In SA, they’ll be living in a new 14-hectare elephant enclosure, roughly the size of the entirety of Perth Zoo, alongside other elephants.

Having spoken to the keepers first-hand on previous visits, it’s evident that it’s going to be a massive wrench to lose the pair.

But it’s also a great testament to zoo staff that despite that, life there moves on — redevelopment of the space currently occupied by the elephants is part of the $51m masterplan for the South Perth facility.

A new cafe and playground have already been completed, and this week, work began on a $11.7 million primate crossing, under which visitors will be able to walk, and tripling the size of the Gibbon enclosure.

“We’re not monkeying about; we’re swinging into action. We’re getting this project done as soon as possible,” Environment Minister Reece Whitby told reporters. “Soon, you’ll be able to dodge whatever the gibbons are propelling down above. It’s not without some minor risk, but this is all part of the rich experience of engaging in and with wildlife.”

He may have laboured the primate puns, but he certainly wasn’t wrong — we do all visit the zoo for that engagement.

And so, it is for that reason alone that I welcome news quietly released over the weekend that our elephants will be with us for another year as keepers wait for Putra Mas’ “hormonal bull elephant period” to be over before they move him and Permai. Another year of visits sounds great for us humans.

But as Miss 6 herself said on her most recent visit: “They need to go — it’s better for them”.

And so say all of us.

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