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Playful Pachyderms Moving to Palatial New Home

Fri June 13, 2008 - Northeast Edition
Jennifer Hetrick

If a building material is strong enough to hold up a house or resist the ravages of being underwater as part of a dock, can it stand up to three female elephants whose natural intelligence and curiosity makes them get up close and personal with anything new or different in their world?

The Roger Williams Park Zoo, Providence, R.I., is betting that Pearson’s Pilings, Fall River, Mass., has the perfect material in its specialized fiberglass pilings for just such a daunting task.

All of the zoo’s animals are provided with “enrichment,” for example, novel objects, food items, smells or other changes to their environments to keep them mentally and physically active. Ron Patalano, director of zoo operations, relayed some stories of how the elephants have used some of these enrichment objects, like tree trunks, in an effort to wedge openings in the fence, because they like interacting with new things and want to use them. However, according to Patalano, the elephants will, of their own accord, detect small differences in their environment and are compelled to check them out. For example, at one time they happened to notice weakened cinder blocks high in the wall of their barn and spent days dismantling them, using only their trunks. At another time the barn doors had to be partially shut with the elephants inside so zoo employees could do some work in the yard. A security guard watched all three elephants try to get out of the barn door at the same time. When they couldn’t all fit, they went back inside and re-emerged in a trunk to tail marching format, as if they had analyzed the problem and figured it out.

With such determination and cleverness combined with sheer size (approximately 9,000 pounds each) the three elephants presented a challenge to the builders of this entirely new environment, which they will be extremely eager to explore.

The new elephant facilities, part of a five-year, $35 million zoo renovation, are designed to stand up to the rigors of these physically and mentally huge animals. The $9 million project will more than double the size of the current yard; from 21,000 sq. ft. (1,951 sq m) to 43,000 sq. ft. (3,994 sq m). There will be a shade area and a new swimming pool, superior to the old one in that it will have sloped sides rather than stairs, which make it much easier for the elephants to get in and out, and a filtration system, which the old pool lacked.

The barn will have the first-ever soft surface floor, similar to a sandbox and closer to the animals’ natural habitat than a hard surface floor. This will be cleaner than the old floor and easier on the elephants’ tusks, which wear away when elephants frequently lie down and get up from hard surfaces. Best of all, the elephants will enjoy digging in the sand, keeping their agile minds busy.

The new fence, with the fiberglass pilings driven into the ground by P & C Marine, Newport, R.I., also will be an improvement over the old one.

P & C Marine is installing 112 pilings 18 to 20 ft. (5.5 to 6.1 m) around the perimeter of the yard. Once the pilings are in place, they are tied together with electrical cable and bumper rail. The fiberglass pilings are ideal in this situation, not only for their strength and resistance to corrosion, but because they also provide a smooth surface for the elephants to scratch their backs on without damaging their skin the way other materials would.

P & C Marine President Chris Pacheco worked in marine construction for 20 years, including working on anti-terrorism projects for the military and building floating barriers for naval bases. But he founded P & C Marine so he could stay closer to home with his growing family. Typical jobs for his company include building bulkheads, docks, sea walls and foundation pilings for buildings being constructed near the seashore. Because Pearson Pilings are ideal for marine projects, Pacheco has a long-standing relationship with the company, making the two a perfect match for the zoo renovation.

To install the pilings, P & C Marine has rented a Link-Belt TCC-450 telescopic crawler crane from the southern New England branch of Woods CRW Worcester, Mass. Marc Varricchione of Woods CRW chose this piece of equipment, which Pacheco had not previously known about, as the perfect crane for the job.

Installing the fence requires moving the crane over an uneven, often muddy surface. The TCC-450 is a 45-ton (40.8 t) rough-terrain crane in a crawler package that moves easily and does not require outriggers. It has 105 ft. (32 m) of four-section telescopic boom with an optional 20-foot (6 m) stowable and offsettable fly.

“Using traditional equipment I would have to set up the crane for each piling. Everything would have to be leveled up and pads would be put down. The time savings with this crane have been great. With building this fence we like to set the first piling in each row and then the last piling in each row and then fill up in between. The crawler crane keeps that amount of movement from being a big time issue. The crane setup is little or no factor. When Woods CRW delivered the crane it was ready to go to work shortly after being taken off the truck,” said Pacheco.

Pacheco also finds the hydraulic pilot operated controls of the TCC-450 easy to operate and likes the LMI computer system, which tells the operator what safety range he is operating in during different applications.

The quiet operation of the Isuzu diesel engine and the self-expanding and contracting system, which eases transportation, also are very impressive. And the service from Woods CRW has been excellent, according to Pacheco, who said that, “even when I needed the smallest of parts they were delivered to me within a couple of hours.”

The project has been moving along with little trouble and should be completed this year. Other improvements to the zoo, which was opened in 1872 making it the third-oldest zoo in the country behind the Philadelphia Zoo and the Bronx Zoo, include a bald eagle habitat, a children’s zoo and a veterinary hospital and animal care facility. The entire renovation should be complete in 2011. CEG

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