The zoo might have its elephants by the end of this year.

But in order for that to happen, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will have to move swiftly.

The Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium filed a permit, along with its partner zoos in Wichita and Dallas, to bring a total of 18 elephants to the U.S. from Swaziland, six of which would head to Omaha. They filed the report in November 2014 and it opened for public comment earlier this month. Members of the public have until Nov. 23 to provide feedback to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before a decision is made on whether to allow the import.

“We have to do a really hard thing, and that is being patient,” said Dennis Pate, the CEO and executive director of Omaha’s zoo.

The three zoos are acquiring the elephants from Big Game Parks Trust in Swaziland, which was otherwise planning to kill the elephants. The herd was overgrazing the land in the Mkhaya Game Reserve and Hlane National Park, causing habitat destruction and loss of food for endangered black rhinos. As part of the deal, the zoos agreed to contribute $450,000 to the park’s black rhino conservation efforts over the next five years.

After the public-comment period, Pate said he expects a decision in about a week or so, and all indications point toward the permits being issued, he said. The wildlife service issued a similar permit to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, Florida, for 11 elephants from Swaziland in 2003 under similar circumstances.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it would be inappropriate to comment on the likelihood of the permit application being approved at this point. Gavin Shire, public affairs officer, also declined to give a timeline, saying that it depends on the comments.

“We do not make decisions based on the number of comments in favor or opposed to any particular action,” Shire said in an email. Instead, the service is looking for new scientific or technical information, not simple opinions of approval or disapproval.

If the zoo’s permits are approved, Pate said it might take a few weeks to coordinate shipping for the 18 elephants. But he isn’t ruling out a mid- to late December arrival.

“You can’t just order up a 747 for tomorrow,” Pate said, “so there’ll be a time lag.”

Meanwhile, construction workers have been putting the finishing touches on the 29,000-square-foot elephant family quarters, the largest herd room in North America. The elephants will make their home there until spring, when they’ll gain access to several new outdoor spaces, in addition to spending evenings sleeping inside the structure.

Recently, the zoo brought in 160 truckloads of sand to create a 4-foot-deep soft substrate for the elephants. The grains of sand are circular, they won’t compact as much, and water will seep through.

Overhead, 12 nets are rigged to drop hay down to the elephants at specific intervals. At several spots on the wall, elephants can stick their trunks through holes into water reservoirs to drink.

Big mounds of sand will serve as pillows for the slumbering giants. Pate said elephants like to circle around one big sand pillow when they sleep. It’s easier to lift their heavy heads in the morning when they’re already elevated.

The space is designed so keepers will stay out of the sand as much as possible. There are a few metal gates set up around the building. Elephants will come to the gate, then keepers will open one of several hinged doors to inspect each elephant. There are doors for their heads, feet and ears.

When elephants get sick or need a check-up, they can go through a hydraulically operated door and into a room with a concrete floor that’s easy to sanitize. Then, they step down into a shallow pool for procedures. If an elephant falls down, a hydraulic crane overhead can pick it back up.

Pate said he might choose to open the building for touring before elephants arrive. He said that if guests are allowed in, they might be able to go down on to the sand, into the chutes and into the back room.

Contact the writer: chris.peters@owh.com, 
402-444-1734, twitter.com/_ChrisPeters

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AFRICAN GRASSLANDS OPENINGS

Giraffe/rhino/hoofstock habitat: Done soon; animal use in spring 2016

Elephant/hoofstock mixed habitat: Done soon; animal use in spring 2016

Rock kopje: Spring 2016

Mammoth sculpture: Spring 2016

Lagoon and new south bridge: Open now, with koi; other animals return in spring 2016

Phase II projects east of lagoon (cheetahs, lions, antelope, etc): Memorial Day Weekend 2016

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VOICE YOUR OPINION

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is accepting public comments about the permit filed by zoos in Omaha, Dallas and Wichita to transport 18 elephants from Swaziland. Here’s how to post a comment.

Search: FWS-HQ-IA-2015-0157

Click: “Draft Environmental Assessment: Dallas Zoo Management, Dallas, Texas”

Click: “Comment Now!”

Due date: Nov. 23, 10:59 p.m.

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