Animal-rights group moves to block zoos’ elephant import


Daniel Salazar, Wichita Eagle

Date Published


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An animal-rights group is taking legal action to stop the import of 18 African elephants to three American zoos, including the Sedgwick County Zoo.

Friends of Animals filed a lawsuit last week in U.S. District Court against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They’re asking the court to “prevent the proposed transfers” until the service fully complies with federal environmental law.

The group argues the service did not take into account how the transfer would negatively hurt the social, mental and physical well-being of the 18 elephants set to be flown to the United States.

“Elephants will experience emotional turmoil in captivity more than any other animal outside of maybe humans and chimpanzees and other primates,” said Michael Harris, director of the Friends of Animals’ Wildlife Law Program. “It’s about time for the government to acknowledge what science has already acknowledged.”

The federal Fish and Wildlife Service issued permits last month to import 18 African elephants from a wildlife trust in Swaziland, a small southeastern African monarchy. Zoos in Dallas, Omaha and Wichita announced a partnership last fall where the zoos would split the costs of the transfer, contribute to conservation efforts in Swaziland and each receive six elephants.

Three zoos denounce lawsuit

In response, the three zoos issued a joint statement praising the government’s “scientifically rigorous analysis” and denouncing the “activists’ lawsuit.”

“These types of delaying tactics compromise efforts to provide these elephants with a safe haven and a more secure future in the United States,” the statement said.

The legal action could affect the Sedgwick County Zoo’s elephant exhibit grand opening as well as its compliance with Association of Zoos and Aquariums standards.

And the Association of Zoos and Aquariums is requiring by this September that accredited zoos featuring elephants must have at least three females, two males or three elephants of mixed gender. The zoo currently has only one pachyderm, a female named Stephanie.

Zoo director Mark Reed has previously told the Eagle the zoo will delay the exhibit opening if the elephants aren’t adjusted to their new home.

What the lawsuit says

The 30-page lawsuit argues the agency did not follow the National Environmental Policy Act as it moved through the permitting process. Friends of Animals says both draft and final documents published in the federal register left out key information regarding the elephants’ welfare and how the import would impact humans.

“You’re really supposed to take a hard look at all the impacts and anything that can affect the human environment and that’s interpreted extremely broadly and includes impacts on wild animals,” said Jennifer Best, the Wildlife Law Program’s assistant director.

The lawsuit argues notes the group’s members in Texas, Kansas and Nebraska would be “distressed” if the import went through.

“Part of it is our experience of the animal suffering,” Harris said. “A lot of people find this very discomforting, have empathy for the animals and some people acutally probably find it to be repulsive.”

The group believes excluding that information hurt the process.

“The missing information might have led to a different outcome in the permitting decision,” according to the lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

The lawsuit says those “failures” prevented a “full and fair discussion of the significant environmental impacts.”

Many conservationists oppose keeping elephants in zoos because they are highly intelligent, migratory animals.

Friends of Animals lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia

“These elephants are likely to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder from being separated from family members in Swaziland, transported across the world and confined in a foreign place,” the lawsuit says. “These elephants will suffer social, psychological, behavioral and physical impacts for the rest of their lives.”

This is not the first time animal welfare advocates have resorted to legal action to stop an elephant import from Swaziland. Groups sued the Department of the Interior, which houses the Fish and Wildlife Service, back in 2003 for issuing permits to zoos in San Diego and Tampa. The elephants were eventually transferred from Swaziland to California and Florida.

Friends of Animals has a telephone conference with the U.S. District Court on Tuesday.

“There’s always a possibility that the zoos agree to provide the court a little bit of time,” Harris said. “If it doesn’t, then we will be probably doing a preliminary injunction motion before the end of the month.”

That would hold the permits until the court makes a final decision “which could take a year or more,” Harris said.

“So a lot is riding obviously on the phone call (Tuesday) and the next couple of weeks.”