Animal-rights groups seek delay on elephant import decision for zoos

Sedgwick County Zoo director Mark Reed points out elements of the Elephants of the Zambezi River Valley exhibit. Several animal-rights groups are seeking to delay a decision on the importation of the elephants. (April 29, 2015)
Sedgwick County Zoo director Mark Reed points out elements of the Elephants of the Zambezi River Valley exhibit. Several animal-rights groups are seeking to delay a decision on the importation of the elephants. (April 29, 2015) File photo

Animal welfare groups are asking the federal government to give the public more time to comment on the Sedgwick County Zoo’s request to get six new elephants.

It would essentially delay the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision on approving the importation of 18 elephants from southern Africa to three American zoos until at least late January.

And Sedgwick County Zoo director Mark Reed says that could put off the planned Memorial Day weekend opening of the Elephants of the Zambezi River Valley exhibit.

“If they arrive at a certain time and they’re not settled in, we won’t open the exhibit,” Reed said. “Their animal welfare comes first.”

The groups also say the Department of the Interior should release all of the documents the zoos submitted to the government when they applied for the permits.

“It frustrates the purpose of the comment period unless the public is provided with access to all of the relevant information,” wrote Carney Anne Nasser, a lawyer for the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

That group requested the delay on behalf of other groups, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Performing Animal Welfare Society, Born Free USA and In Defense of Animals.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is weighing whether to approve the import permits for African elephants from two national parks in Swaziland, a landlocked monarchy in southeastern Africa.

The Dallas Zoo filed the application on behalf of the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita and Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo. Each zoo would get six elephants.

A group of conservationists is opposed to the import because they believe African elephants do not belong in zoos as a social, migratory species.

The government published the draft environmental assessment on Oct. 22 and set up a forum for public comments. That will close Nov. 23.

Nasser said Friday that’s too little time on a complex conservation decision.

“The import of 18 wild captured African elephants is a huge undertaking,” Nasser said Friday. “A 30-day comment period is woefully inadequate.”

Nasser also said the government should publish the full application the Dallas Zoo turned in to the service.

It’s 1,094 pages. The draft environmental assessment is 18 pages long.

“That’s really depriving the public the opportunity to see the full implications and everything that’s going on behind the scenes with this import,” Nasser said.

PETA filed a records request for the application shortly after the zoos announced their partnership in September. They received a copy on Oct. 30 and shared it with other animal-rights groups opposed to the import, Nasser said.

Nasser said the application, which includes photos, diagrams, documents from Swaziland, brochures, legal summaries and private e-mails, has vital information that should be available to the public.

“The (environmental assessment) is based on the underlying application,” Nasser said. “It’s really important to have access to all of the information that’s being considered by the agency.”

The groups are requesting a 60-day extension to the public commenting period after more detailed documents are published. That would push the review of all public comments to the second half of January.

The Fish and Wildlife Service says it received the request and is weighing it now.

“We’re reviewing it now, and if we were to extend the public comment period, we would publish that in the Federal Register,” said Lisa Lierheimer, acting chief of the service branch that issues permits.

Lierheimer did not say there was a timeline for a decision. Nasser said it could happen near the comment deadline on Nov. 23.

“I’ve seen agencies wait until the 11th hour,” Nasser said.

While the Fish and Wildlife Service doesn’t typically publish the full permit applications, it does grant extensions to take more public comments, said Gavin Shire, the service’s public affairs chief.

“There needs to be a good reason for us to do it,” Shire said.

Reed, who wants the elephants in Sedgwick County as early as possible, said the groups are using the request to stall the process.

“Their tactic is to delay this as long as possible and give them more time to try and stop it,” Reed said.

Nasser said she was not optimistic the extension would be granted. But she hopes the full application will shed more light on what the Fish and Wildlife Service has to consider.

“It’s the fair thing to do for all sides,” Nasser said. “There’s a variety of different perspectives on this. It gives everybody the opportunity to weigh in and weigh in thoughtfully.”

Some of the groups could try to sue the Department of the Interior, which houses the service, if the permits are issued. It happened the last time American zoos imported elephants from Swaziland. And some of the groups involved in the request, such as the Animal Legal Defense Fund, were involved in the 2003 lawsuit.

It’s unclear how the elephant exhibit’s opening would be affected if they took legal action, Reed said.

“A lot of it is going to depend on what happens after the permits are issued,” he said.

“And that’s the next big question.”

Daniel Salazar: 316-269-6791, @imdanielsalazar