Sedgwick County Zoo needs to make room for one more elephant

01/29/2012 5:00 AM

04/26/2012 10:37 AM

Stephanie and Cinda have been two peas in a pod for 40 years, but the Sedgwick County Zoo needs to make room for a new friend for them.

If it can’t, it risks losing the popular elephants.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums is requiring that all zoos it accredits have space for at least three elephants by September 2016.

That’s because the AZA doesn’t want elephants living alone. If either Stephanie or Cinda died, the other would spend her days without animal companionship, which is crucial to elephants’ health and happiness.

“They’re definitely social animals,” said Mike Quick, curator of mammals at the Sedgwick County Zoo. “They live in herds and shouldn’t be kept by themselves.”

About 70 zoos accredited by the AZA have about 300 elephants between them, said Steve Feldman, spokesman for the association.

Most of those zoos have more than two elephants. But some, such as the county’s, have only a pair. Stephanie and Cinda are from South Africa and arrived in Wichita in 1972, a year after the zoo opened. They have lived together since.

The zoo is sussing out what it will do to comply with the new regulations.

“I think we will do everything in our power to keep the elephants,” said Stan Andeel, president of the Sedgwick County Zoological Society.

The zoo put together a “dream plan” a few years ago for a new elephant exhibit that at last count would cost $16 million. The economy has put the kibosh on that for now.

A temporary fix — renovating the current exhibit — would cost about $1 million, said zoo spokeswoman Christan Baumer.

That would give the zoo space to hold a third elephant, but $1 million wouldn’t cover the expense of getting and keeping another of the animals. It only would allow the zoo to comply with the regulation to have space for a third elephant. The cost of acquiring a third elephant would depend on where the zoo got it.

Andeel said no one wants to throw $1 million into a 40-year-old exhibit.

“We’d basically be pouring money into a building that is not desirable to keep forever,” he said.

Until the economy improves, though, the $16 million plan is on hold.

The zoo’s dream plan would include breeding elephants for future generations.

That’s important nationwide, Feldman said.

“We want to try to breed elephants to create a genetically diverse, self-sustaining population. That’s our goal,” Feldman said. “They should be with other elephants. That’s why up until now we said zoos had to have at least two.”

Penney, a longtime fixture at the Kansas City Zoo, died last week at an estimated age of 51. That zoo already is in compliance with the standards to go into effect in four years.

Feldman said some AZA-accredited zoos might be forced to give up their elephants.

“They might do that temporarily while they’re doing a renovation,” he said.

The AZA has a management plan for elephants and 500 other species. Zoos voluntarily submit to accreditation. While the AZA might ask Zoo X to donate an elephant to Zoo Y, “in the end, it’s their animal,” Feldman said, and the association can’t force a zoo to give an elephant to another facility.

“It’s not an easy animal to find or acquire,” Quick said.

The zoo artificially inseminated Cinda in 2002, but she did not produce a baby.

County Commissioner Dave Unruh, who serves on the zoo’s board, said he doesn’t want to lose elephants at Kansas’ No. 1 tourist attraction.

“We know that there are real strict requirements on keeping elephants, and so we’re going to have to figure out a way to comply with them,” Unruh said. “Both of our elephants are starting to get a little bit older. We really are just trying to figure out what our next step is.”

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