An animal rights group is taking legal action that could delay or prevent elephants from arriving in Omaha.

Friends of Animals filed a lawsuit in federal court Tuesday against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which granted permits to three zoos – including Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium – to import 18 elephants from Swaziland.

The lawsuit alleges that the wildlife service violated the National Environmental Policy Act. Friends of Animals, which is headquartered in Connecticut, argues that the service should have done an analysis examining the emotional and physical well-being of the animals before granting a permit.

Friends of Animals is asking the court to suspend the permit issued by the wildlife service until it performs such an analysis. If a judge chooses to take that action, the zoo’s planned transport of its share of the 18 elephants (estimated at six) could be delayed.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service declined to comment.

The Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium and its partners in the import — the Dallas Zoo and Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas — released a joint statement about the lawsuit, saying "these types of delaying tactics compromise efforts to provide these elephants with a safe haven and a more secure future in the United States."

"Any actions that would further delay this move also jeopardize the elephants’ well-being," said Dennis Pate, CEO and executive director of Omaha’s zoo. "They are currently living in temporary bomas (small pens) that are not designed for long-term care, and the region is experiencing extreme drought that threatens food supply. The best possible outcome for these animals is to relocate them to the U.S. without further delay."

The elephants are slated to arrive and go on display this spring.

Be the first to know when news happens. Get the latest breaking headlines sent straight to your inbox.

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Commenting is limited to Omaha World-Herald subscribers. To sign up, click here.

If you're already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.

Load comments

You must be a full digital subscriber to read this article You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.