FELLSMERE, Fla. - Old citrus groves west of Interstate 95, just south of the Brevard County line, will soon be a new stomping ground for retired elephants.
Florida Today reports that The National Elephant Center also plans to keep Asian and African elephants of all ages and possibly breed some of the mammoth mammals.
"We want to improve the welfare of elephants," John Lehnhardt, executive director of the National Elephant Center, told a crowd of about 50 local dignitaries Wednesday.
The non-profit center showed off its first open-air, galvanized metal barn, where up to nine elephants will one day hang out, even during hurricanes.
Local contractors MH Williams Construction Group of Melbourne recently finished the first $2.5 million phase of the project, which included the 200-foot-long barn.
When complete, the $15 million center hopes to keep as many as three dozen elephants for long-term care. The first are expected in the spring.
For the most part, the center won't be open to the public, only for special trips for Brevard Zoo members and local school groups. Accredited zoo workers and others throughout North America will be trained on how to care for elephants.
The goal is better long-term care for these gentle — and sometimes abused — giants.
"We call it our pachyderm paradise," said Rick Barongi, the center's outgoing board chairman and director of the Houston Zoo.
"Oranges for the rest of their life, I guess," Barongi joked, standing under the new barn's roof, with a backdrop of citrus trees.
The center sits on 225 acres of leased agricultural land near the Blue Cypress Conservation Area in Indian River County.
Phase one of the project encompasses about a quarter of the site and includes one barn for both Asian and African elephants, with attached enclosed areas and three interconnected pastures with ponds and trees.
Elephants will be able to roam freely within the 225 acres bound by perimeter fencing as well as large farming canals.
The center is run with help from the Brevard Zoo.
Brevard Zoo won't be getting any of the elephants, though. They lack the facilities and the funding. But the center will be a place where zoo staff from throughout North America can get training in proper care and medical treatment for elephants and how to handle them in captivity.
"We're deeply involved in this facility," said Keith Winsten, Brevard Zoo's director and the elephant center's incoming board chairman. The Brevard Zoo is consulting on the project.
The center will take in abandoned elephants from private circuses, individuals who keep elephants as pets, the movie industry - basically any elephants that need long-term care.
They also may eventually take diseased elephants with tuberculosis and other diseases for treatment. They would be quarantined in a separate barn to be built on site.
"We want to be able to take in elephants that come from not-as-good situations," Lehnhardt said.
Elephants can live up to 60 years, so they can require a long-term care-taking commitment.
Here, they'll have a heated barn for cold nights. Hurricanes? No worries. Elephants are well adapted to rough weather, Lehnhardt said, and will remain in the barns during storms. Experience during Hurricane Andrew in 1992 proved that 8,000-pound elephants can stand their ground in even the strongest of storms, Lehnhardt said.
About 300 elephants are in captivity in North American zoos, he said.
The center hopes to increase the endangered species' numbers.
"They are tough to breed in captivity," Winsten said.
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