The Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium and its partner zoos sent an airplane to Swaziland, sedated 18 elephants and prepared them for loading Tuesday, forcing a judge to make an emergency decision to allow the transport.

The elephants could arrive in the United States as early as Thursday, depending on travel itinerary. An Eppley Airfield official said it was expecting the flight but did not know when. A spokesman with Big Game Parks, which housed the elephants, said the plane remained in Swaziland on Wednesday as of 8 a.m. Omaha time.

Zoo spokeswoman Dawn Ream said Wednesday morning: "We won't be disclosing any flight information for the safety of the animals."

After temporarily freezing the import while he deliberated, U.S. District Judge John D. Bates decided to allow the import for fear that sedating the elephants an additional time would cause more harm.

“The defendant-intervenor zoos have represented that the elephants have already been sedated and placed in transit to the airport in Swaziland,” Bates said in his decision.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued permits in February, prompting Friends of Animals, an animal-rights group, to sue in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. The zoos entered the lawsuit as defendants.

The action by the zoos a week and a half before a scheduled hearing in the lawsuit came as a surprise.

“They had every opportunity to tell us and the court that they were intending to do this,” said Michael Harris, the lawyer for Friends of Animals. “Obviously there is nothing technically legally binding them not to do this, but I think it’s sort of beyond the spirit of something one would expect of an adversary.”

The three zoos — Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium, Dallas Zoo and Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas — released a joint statement shortly before 7 p.m. Tuesday.

“It is in (the elephants’) best interest to relocate them as soon as possible,” the statement says. “Swaziland is in a state of national disaster due to severe, historic drought that has killed tens of thousands of animals. Food throughout the region is scarce.”

Harris asked Bates, of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, for an immediate freeze on the import Tuesday morning. Friends of Animals says Fish and Wildlife should have done an analysis examining the emotional and physical well-being of the animals before granting a permit, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act.

Harris said he learned about the zoos’ action from an anonymous Swazi official, who sent a photograph of a plane on the runway about 7:30 a.m. Swaziland time on Tuesday. Harris then traced the plane’s tail number back to Kansas City and eventually to the zoos.

Bates, who is in Namibia for business, then ordered the zoos to wait to move the elephants until he could make an emergency decision, Harris said.

Bates held a teleconference Tuesday afternoon, about midnight in Africa, with attorneys for both sides. He then took about an hour to deliberate.

Ultimately, Bates chose to deny Friends of Animals’ request shortly before 5 p.m. Omaha time.

Bates ordered the zoos to file statements of support from one or more veterinarians saying a second round of sedation would be too dangerous.

In his decision, Bates said the court was “not able to definitively resolve the issue” because of the short timeline and limited information from the teleconference. “But it appears there is at least some risk to the elephants” if the import had been blocked.

Harris, who received the news of the judge’s decision while on the phone with The World-Herald, said he’s unsure where the lawsuit now stands.

“We’re not going to be able to keep the animals from coming to these zoos, that’s for sure,” he said.

Dr. Jim Sikarskie, an associate professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Michigan State University, said via e-mail that the elephants would likely be heavily sedated at first, but then brought down to a lower level of sedation for the duration of the shipment. The elephants are likely sedated just enough, he said, to relieve anxiety and keep them calm during the travel.

They are likely still able to eat and drink within their crates, he said.

"Dose and drugs used vary and depend on the attitude and behavior of the individual animal," Sikarskie said, "so I am sure each is being monitored closely by a veterinarian from the destination zoo."

The zoos declined to comment further on the import but have said in the past that veterinarians would travel with the elephants to monitor them throughout the transport.

The Omaha zoo’s CEO and executive director, Dennis Pate, has said that once the elephants arrive, they would take a few weeks to acclimate before going on display. The African Grasslands, which includes the elephant exhibit, is scheduled to open in time for Memorial Day weekend.

A NEW HOME FOR ELEPHANTS

Part of the new $73 million, 28-acre African Grasslands exhibit.

Building: Elephant Family Quarters, more than 29,000 square feet with a 4-foot-deep sand floor, the largest herd room in North America.

Outdoors: Four acres of exhibit space, a mixed-species habitat with zebras and impalas, a 150,000-gallon wading pool, mud bath, sand pit, elephant amphitheater training area and hay shelves with timed drops that encourage animals to move about the area.

Opening: Memorial Day 2016

World-Herald staff writer David Hendee contributed to this report.

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

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