Spectators lined 10th Street in Omaha’s Old Market, waving and applauding as a semitrailer drove crated African elephants toward their new home in Omaha.
The man credited with the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium’s status among the country’s most well-regarded zoos, Dr. Lee Simmons, hung out the window, snapping photographs.
In the driver’s seat was zoo director Dennis Pate, the man responsible for building the zoo’s future and for bringing these two truckloads of elephants over from Africa. Behind him in the backseat sat Dawn Ream, spokeswoman for the zoo.
“It was such an amazing moment,” she said.
To the elation of many zoo fans but the disapproval of animal-rights groups, the zoo’s six new elephants landed in Omaha on Friday afternoon after a 36-hour journey from their former home in southern Africa.
A Boeing 747 cargo plane arrived at Eppley Airfield at 4:11 p.m. with the five females and one male. They were part of a group of 17 elephants imported from Big Game Parks in Swaziland. The plane made a stop in Senegal on its long trip, then dropped off five elephants in Fort Worth, Texas, and six in Wichita, Kansas, before landing in Omaha.
“The big moment for me was when the plane touched down,” Pate said. “If there weren’t people in the car with me, I would have teared up.”
The animals were thin upon arrival but otherwise healthy. U.S. Department of Agriculture veterinarians inspected the elephants both at Eppley and at the zoo.
At the airport, it took crews about two hours to unload the elephant crates and reload them onto two semitrailers. The animals and their entourage then made their way through downtown Omaha and to a back entrance of the zoo at Ninth and Homer Streets.
The trucks pulled up directly behind the elephant quarters — a 29,000-square-foot building that the zoo says is the largest herd room in North America.
A crane slowly lifted the crates off the truck one by one and placed them against a door. The door to each crate was opened, and the elephants walked into their new home.
Zookeepers laid out food — akin to a trail of bread crumbs, Pate said — to entice the elephants to walk a path into the individual stalls that will house them temporarily.
The elephants’ new home includes about 4 acres of outdoor space with a 150,000-gallon wading pool, a mud bath, a sand pit and hay shelves with timed drops that encourage them to move from one station to another for exercise and visibility.
Outdoors, the elephants will share some space with impalas and zebras, but they must spend 30 days quarantined in their building before intermingling with other animals.
Pate said the elephants would go on display to the public before the planned Memorial Day opening of the $73 million African Grasslands exhibit.
The yet-unnamed elephants range in age. The oldest, a female, is 20 to 25 years old, and another female is about 10. The rest, three females and the lone male, are ages 5 to 10. They are all from the same social group but are not necessarily related.
Listen to zoo director Dennis Pate speak at Friday's press conference on the new arrivals:
That makeup is similar to the elephant groups sent to the Kansas and Texas zoos. Wichita’s Sedgwick County Zoo got six; the Dallas Zoo, which already had four elephants, got five.
Initially, the three zoos intended to import 18 elephants, but one died in December from an acute gastrointestinal condition. The death was one reason the zoos gave for moving quickly on the transport.
As part of their agreement to acquire the elephants, the three zoos will contribute a total of about $450,000 over several years to Big Game Parks in Swaziland for black rhino conservation.
The zoos had been providing food at the African park for the elephants, who were relocated to smaller, controlled bomas to keep them from overgrazing and further degrading the park’s trees. The small African kingdom of Swaziland has been enduring a severe drought that, the zoos say, caused a food shortage that was only worsened by a herd of more than 30 elephants. Big Game Parks said it was prepared to cull the elephants if they were not relocated to the U.S.
Animal-rights groups have protested the move since it was announced, although there were no visible protests Friday in Omaha.
One group, Friends of Animals, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which issued the import permits. The zoos entered the suit as defendants in the case, which was set for a hearing on St. Patrick’s Day.
But a judge never blocked the permits, so the zoos went forward with the move one week before the scheduled hearing.
Michael Harris, a lawyer for Friends of Animals, asked a judge Tuesday for a restraining order to stop the transport, but the judge denied the request.
About 36 hours later, a plane left Swaziland with the elephants aboard.
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Jane Goodall disapproves of captive elephants: 'It's terrible'
World-renowned conservationist Jane Goodall said Friday night in Omaha that she hasn’t visited the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium but is concerned that elephants were brought there from Swaziland.
“I think actually it’s terrible,” she said in an interview, “unless it’s a huge safari park where the elephants can be provided real space.”
Omaha’s six new elephants will be part of the $73 million African Grasslands exhibit, part of which is the 29,000-square-foot Elephant Family Quarters, including 4 acres of outdoor space for the creatures.
Goodall, 81, later spoke to 2,000 people, a full house at the Holland Performing Arts Center, about her experiences with chimpanzees in Tanzania. She warned of damage to the planet, but said: “If we join together, we can change the world.”
Goodall travels today to central Nebraska to see the annual migration of sandhill cranes, as she has for about 15 years.
— Michael Kelly