The Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium’s African elephant import may have seemed abrupt, but it had been in the works for weeks.
As soon as the zoo and its partners in Dallas and Wichita received permits from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on Jan. 22, plans were made to transport the elephants to the United States. A legal challenge from the animal rights group Friends of Animals did not alter those plans, said Omaha zoo CEO and Executive Director Dennis Pate.
“They could have filed for a temporary restraining order any time since Jan. 22 and did not,” Pate said. “Once we got the permit, we were ready to move, unless the courts told us not to.”
The zoos never planned to publicize information about the transport out of fear for the safety of the animals. So when the zoos sedated, crated and transported the elephants to a runway in Swaziland on Tuesday to start the journey to America, it came as a surprise to many.
But Pate said this was no impulsive move. Government agencies in the United States and in Swaziland knew about the transport plans well in advance.
An army of people — including about 60 in Omaha — were involved, some traveling to Africa to prepare the animals, some accompanying them on the long flight to the United States, some unloading and getting the elephants acclimated in their new home, and others ensuring the new habitat in Omaha was ready for them.
The zoos arranged for a Boeing 747 cargo plane to arrive in Swaziland, they ordered custom-built transport crates, they sent heavy machinery to the country, and they deployed veterinary staff to ensure that the transport went smoothly.
Dr. Doug Armstrong, the zoo’s director of animal health, was in Swaziland with the elephants and remained in the country when the animals left for the United States. On Saturday, he flew back to Omaha.
Armstrong had been managing biological sampling — checking ticks, collecting blood and feces samples and inspecting the elephants for tuberculosis.
Pate said Armstrong has been to Swaziland several times to monitor the elephants in the Big Game Parks wildlife reserve, where they lived. That testing will continue as the pachyderms transition to zoo life.
More than a dozen veterinarians, including Armstrong, have been conducting a years-long study on the lives of elephants, including all 17 imported from Swaziland. Although a report on the study has not yet been published, Pate said the lessons learned along the way were applied to the zoo’s elephant exhibit.
For example, elephants in captivity have a history of foot problems caused by concrete enclosures. So, Pate said, the zoo built a barn with sand that is 4 feet deep.
In captivity, elephants also have a history of inactivity. To combat that, Pate said, the zoo has timed hay drops that encourage the elephants to move about their 4-acre outdoor exhibit and throughout their 29,000-square-foot indoor space.
After the elephants left Swaziland, another of the zoo’s veterinarians, Dr. Jennifer Waldoch, met them in Fort Worth, Texas, and rode with them to Omaha.
On the plane, Waldoch and other vets took turns feeding the animals, traveling down the row of crates to alternate food and water.
“We would have 10-liter bottles of water that we would pour into a bucket,” Pate said. “In some cases they would drink five of those 10-liter bottles of water.”
Pate said the elephants were sedated in Swaziland in order to be loaded into crates, but he wasn’t aware of any further sedation after the elephants left the country.
When Waldoch and the elephants arrived in Omaha shortly after 4 p.m. on Friday, Pate was first on the plane.
“I felt very sympathetic to the rigors of their long journey and was anxious to get things moving to get them off the plane, on the trucks and in the hands of our veterinarians and animal care staff,” Pate said. “To be honest, after three and three-quarters years of working on this, it was a bit hard to believe that they were actually here.
“There were a few whispers to the elephants about a promise to take good care of them.”
On the runway with Pate was Dr. Lee Simmons, the zoo’s former director and current chairman of the Omaha Zoo Foundation, now in his 50th year with the zoo.
“He was thrilled to be involved in all of this,” Pate said. “He has been through lots of these animal importations, though nothing even approaching this scale.”
Once the elephants were loaded onto semitrailers, Pate and Simmons led a trail of cars behind the first truck, which traveled through downtown Omaha, the Old Market and Little Italy on the way to the zoo.
There, the elephants were slowly unloaded and ushered into their new exhibits, one by one. The task took until about midnight to complete.
The elephants will spend about 30 days in quarantine, being monitored by veterinarians. To ensure the animals did not bring any diseases with them, about a dozen workers in hazmat jumpsuits removed waste from the crates, some of which had collected in tarps underneath, and sent the material to Kansas City to be incinerated.
Pate said the elephants could go on display before the 30-day quarantine period is up, depending on how well they are doing.
“We’re going to have to let the elephants tell us.”
Meet the elephants
Five females: One 20 to 25 years old; one about 10 years old; and three 5 to 10 years old
One male: 5 to 10 years old
Names: None yet; naming process to be determined
Home park: Hlane Royal National Park, Lubombo, Swaziland, one of three reserves managed by Big Game Parks
Social groups: Three lived together in a habitat with lions; three lived together in a habitat without lions
Neighbors: The two social groups shared a fence line in temporary enclosures for eight months
On display: Timing to be determined — could be as early as a few weeks
Cost to feed: About $100 per day per elephant