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Zoo director: New elephants settling in ahead of exhibit opening

Sedgwick County Zoo director Mark Reed says the zoo’s new African elephants are settling in ahead of their exhibit’s grand opening.

And it was announced Wednesday that their new home will be named after Reed and his family.

The Sedgwick County Zoo’s most expensive exhibit ever, which will house Stephanie and the six new elephants from Swaziland, will be named the Reed Family Elephants of the Zambezi River Valley. It opens Memorial Day weekend with a sneak peek for zoo members starting on May 11.

See the names and photographs of the six new elephants at the Sedgwick County Zoo. They range in ages 6-20 years old. (April 8, 2016, video by Jaime Green/The Wichita Eagle)

“I thought maybe some day it might be a holding barn behind the scenes or something like that when I retired,” Reed said of having a structure named after him, laughing. “I never ever imagined something like this, to be honest with you.”

Reed led the zoo as it did the exhibit’s $10.6 million fundraising campaign, which was completed last summer.

The first three days we think Stephanie was wondering what the heck happened to her life. This little squirt came in with no tusk, ears out, trunk extended trumpeting at her, and she didn’t know what to make of that.

Mark Reed, Sedgwick County Zoo director

In his first interview with The Eagle since the new elephants arrived, Reed explained why he thought the sudden transfer of the elephants to the U.S. was necessary in the midst of a legal fight with an animal-rights group. He also talked about how the pachyderms are adjusting to life outside of Africa.

Logistics ‘incredible’

Last fall, the Sedgwick County Zoo announced it had partnered with zoos in Dallas and Omaha to apply to bring in elephants from Swaziland in southern Africa.

“The thing that’s different about this than all the other projects we’ve done here is that the most difficult part of this whole job was getting the elephants,” Reed said.

The zoos had applied for the import permits from a federal agency. Reed said they expected a legal fight from animal-rights and conservation groups, who oppose keeping elephants in zoos because of their intelligent, migratory nature.

“We knew the government was going to get sued by the animal-rights activists. We just didn’t know which ones and how many, and it turned out to only be one,” Reed said.

Connecticut-based Friends of Animals sued the federal government for issuing the permits, saying the mental and physical toll of captivity wasn’t considered in the permit decision.

“We knew that their lawsuit was very, very weak; weak enough that you might notice none of the other activists joined them,” Reed said.

Drought conditions in Africa raised the stakes to get the elephants earlier, Reed said, adding that the costs to feed the elephants were piling up as they shipped in hay from South Africa.

“Food was getting harder to lock down to guarantee to keep bringing the hay up,” Reed said. “It was getting harder and harder to find the supply and good quality to do it. Plus we had to pay to bring it across borders.”

He said costs also mounted for their partners in Swaziland, who provided around-the-clock security for the elephants from poachers.

With a hearing scheduled in federal court, the zoos quietly prepped for a transfer. Reed said they needed to keep any move under wraps because of the threat from poachers.

“It’s not something they want, outside people knowing what’s going on,” Reed said.

The elephants were sedated and taken to the airport. A last-ditch effort to stop the transfer was rejected by a judge.

“(The early transfer) saved us a bloody fortune to start with,” Reed said. “We believed in what we were doing, that what we were doing was the right thing.”

18th elephant

Seventeen elephants landed in the United State after the intercontinental flight. The zoos in Omaha and Wichita got six elephants each, and the Dallas Zoo got five.

The zoos say an 18th elephant died in December. But they didn’t announce that until the plane had left Africa on March 10.

Zoo spokeswoman Melissa Graham said they didn’t publicize the death because they didn’t know how many elephants would be approved for import by the feds.

“We always knew that the permit was ‘up to 18’ and that it could change at any moment,” Graham said.

“Any time you’re handling the animal, you’re running the risk of something could have happened unloading them in the crates. You could have had one die,” Reed added.

Reed could not confirm the exact date of the death. He said they suspect some sort of intestinal problems caused the death.

‘Totally comfortable’

Six elephants arrived at the Sedgwick County Zoo on March 11. Five are female. Most are 6, 7 or 8 years old; one is about 20 years old.

Although it took three weeks for Stephanie, the zoo’s longtime elephant, to feel comfortable in the building’s exhibit, the new elephants adjusted quickly to their new home, Reed said.

“They felt totally comfortable in 24 to 48 hours,” Reed said. “All but one of them learned what the automatic drinkers were and how they worked. They had never seen a building before.

“The automatic doors that open and shut didn’t phase them. We’ve had construction equipment actually in the building. Bobcats (construction excavators or movers) didn’t phase them. They’re fearless.”

Reed said the elephants came in skinnier than the zoo had hoped because of the drought in Swaziland.

“(The elephants) were, absolutely no question, food-stressed as far as the climatic conditions they were facing over there,” Reed said. “They’re slowly gaining weight now.”

Reed said it’s been an adjustment for Stephanie, who had been the only elephant at the zoo for more than a year.

The first three days we think Stephanie was wondering what the heck happened to her life. This little squirt came in with no tusk, ears out, trunk extended trumpeting at her, and she didn’t know what to make of that.

Mark Reed, Sedgwick County Zoo director

“The first three days we think Stephanie was wondering what the heck happened to her life,” Reed said. “This little squirt came in with no tusk, ears out, trunk extended trumpeting at her, and she didn’t know what to make of that.”

Reed said the elephants have mainly interacted with Stephanie through trunk-to-trunk touching so far. And the oldest female, Simunye, has deferred to Stephanie despite having a “strong-willed personality.”

“That was the big question, because this female was obviously one of the (more) hierarchical of the 17 elephants that came over,” Reed said.

A sneak preview for zoo members begins on May 11. There will also be private tours and events for some donors and businesses.

The exhibit opens to the public on May 27.

Ryan Gulker, deputy director of the Sedgwick County Zoo, gets emotional when asked about the six new Swazi elephants that arrived Friday. (Matt Riedl/The Wichita Eagle)

Six elephants from Swaziland arrived at Sedgwick County Zoo Friday afternoon to cheers from those on hand for the arrival. The elephants are among 17 that arrived in Dallas on a 747 shortly after midnight Friday and the Wichita Eisenhower Airport

Six elephants from Swaziland destined for the Sedgwick County Zoo arrived in a 747 at Wichita Eisenhower National Airport at 12:31 p.m. Friday.

Daniel Salazar: 316-269-6791, @imdanielsalazar

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