The National Elephant Center in Fellsmere, Fla., photographed Feb. 20, 2013 during a media tour, has completed its first phase of construction. / Rik Jesse, Florida Today
FELLSMERE, Fla. -- Retired elephants, as well as Asian and African elephants of all ages which may be bred will soon have a new stomping ground at the National Elephant Center in Fellsmere, Fla.
The goal of the center located on old citrus groves nearly 100 miles southeast of Orlando, Fla., just west of Interstate 95, is to improve the long-term health and welfare of the elephants in North America.
"We want to improve the welfare of elephants," said John Lehnhardt, executive director of the National Elephant Center on Wednesday.
The first $2.5 million phase of the project, which included a 200-foot-long open-air, galvanized metal barn, was recently finished. Up to nine elephants will one day hang out in the barn, even during hurricanes.
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 (Fla.) Zoo members and school groups. Accredited zoo workers and others throughout North America will be trained on how to care for elephants.
"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, Fla.
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, bound by perimeter fencing as well as large farming canals.
The center will be a place where zoo staff from throughout North America can get training in proper care.
"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. Elephants can live up to 60 years.
They also may eventually take diseased elephants for treatment. They would be quarantined.
"We want to be able to take in elephants that come from not-as-good situations," Lehnhardt said.
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.
While there are about 300 elephants in captivity in North American zoos, Lehnhardt said, the center hopes to increase the numbers of the endangered species.
"They are tough to breed in captivity," Winsten said.
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