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Despite lawsuit, elephants readied for flight to U.S. zoos, including in Wichita

VIDEO: Feds approve elephant import to Sedgwick County Zoo

Sedgwick County Zoo Director Mark Reed talks about his excitement that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has approved the import of elephants from Africa to zoos in Wichita, Dallas and Omaha. (video by Jaime Green)
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Sedgwick County Zoo Director Mark Reed talks about his excitement that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has approved the import of elephants from Africa to zoos in Wichita, Dallas and Omaha. (video by Jaime Green)

The elephants are on their way – no ifs, ands or buts this time.

With a hearing on the proposed elephant import looming in federal court, three American zoos, including the Sedgwick County Zoo, moved on Tuesday to anesthetize and load the elephants for a flight from Swaziland to the United States, according to court records.

The animal-rights group suing to stop the importation found out and asked for a restraining order to stop the transfer.

But a U.S. District Court judge denied the order, because sedating elephants again for a later transfer is unsafe.

The sudden turn of events means 18 elephants are on the move to be flown to the United States and placed in zoos in Wichita, Dallas and Omaha.

For the sake of the elephants, we moved quickly to relocate these animals to safe homes with a secure future.

Melissa Graham, spokeswoman for the Sedgwick County Zoo

“For the sake of the elephants, we moved quickly to relocate these animals to safe homes with a secure future,” Sedgwick County Zoo spokeswoman Melissa Graham said in a Tuesday night statement.

Michael Harris, director of the Friends of Animals wildlife law program, blasted the zoos for transporting the elephants before the court ruled on the lawsuit.

They decided to sneak in and steal away these 18 under the darkness of night. … The underhandedness of this move cannot be understated.

Michael Harris, Friends of Animals wildlife law program director

“They decided to sneak in and steal away these 18 under the darkness of night,” he wrote in a statement.

Busy Tuesday

The Connecticut-based group had been trying to stop the importation of 18 African elephants from Swaziland in southern Africa to three American zoos. The group opposes keeping elephants in zoos, because they are social and migratory animals.

The group sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for issuing the permits to the Dallas Zoo, which applied on behalf of the Sedgwick County Zoo and the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha.

A preliminary injunction hearing on the lawsuit was scheduled for next week.

But the animal-rights group says it found out from an anonymous source that a plane landed in Swaziland on Tuesday to load the elephants within 24 hours, according to court records. Friends of Animals says the plane took off from Kansas City on Saturday.

The group’s lawyers asked the court to issue an emergency temporary restraining order to void the permits, which were issued in January and are valid for one year.

The court initially wanted to stop the transfer while it gathered information but learned “certain aspects of the transfer had already begun.”

The 18 elephants were placed under anesthesia for the flight, according to a declaration by Christopher Bonar, Dallas Zoo senior director of animal health. He said the elephants had “already been loaded in their crates for the airplane” as of 2 p.m. Central Time on Tuesday and were “on trucks traveling away from the bomas (enclosures) to the Swaziland airport.”

There was a hastily arranged teleconference among the zoos, the animal-rights group and U.S. District Judge John Bates, who is in Namibia on a business trip.

Bates denied the request for a temporary restraining order that would have stopped the transfer. He wrote that stopping the transfer would do more harm than good.

“(Friends of Animals) has not carried its burden to show that all the factors, taken together, weigh in favor of this emergency relief,” Bates wrote. “In light of the potential danger to the elephants of stopping this transfer process midstream, Friends of Animals has not carried that burden.”

Bonar told the court it would be unsafe to stop the transfer and anesthesize the elephants again.

“It would seem highly possible (if not probable) that doing so would result in some significant morbidity or mortality,” Bonar wrote.

Quick reactions

Graham, in a joint statement from the three zoos, said the zoos were “relieved” the restraining order request was denied.

The zoos had paid to bring in truckloads of hay from South Africa while the government decided on the permits. But the statement said food was becoming scarcer as Swaziland continues to suffer through drought conditions.

“Resources to feed and care for the elephants were being stretched thin,” according to the statement.

Graham said it was in the elephants’ best interest to relocate them as soon as possible.

“The attempt by activists to further delay the relocation only jeopardized the animals,” she said.

Friends of Animals’ Harris said the zoos acted swiftly to avoid the scrutiny of the federal courts.

“Our scientific understanding of the impacts that confinement has on elephants has grown tremendously,” Harris wrote. “The underhandedness of this move cannot be understated.”

Sedgwick County Zoo Director Mark Reed talks about his excitement that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has approved the import of elephants from Africa to zoos in Wichita, Dallas and Omaha. (video by Jaime Green)

Sedgwick County Zoo director Mark Reed announced on September 25, 2015 that the zoo has partnered with the Dallas Zoo and Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium to form a conservation partnership with a wildlife trust in Swaziland. Each zoo will re

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