Wednesday, June 24, 2009

National Elephant Center in St. Lucie County could get animals by end of year

By Eric Pfahler (Contact)
Thursday, April 16, 2009.

ST. LUCIE COUNTY — Elephants soon may be the latest visitors to St. Lucie County.

If all goes as planned, The National Elephant Center could begin bringing the giant mammals to a 300-acre facility in western St. Lucie County along the Okeechobee County border by the end of this year or early 2010, said Rick Barongi, center vice chairman.

“We hope to break ground this summer or at the end of this summer,” Barongi said.

The National Elephant Center has collected $4 million to $5 million almost entirely from zoos around the nation for the first phase of the project, which calls for the housing of fewer than 10 Asian and African elephants.

Future phases of the site are in the works, though any plans are based on donations and revenue from the center, Barongi said. Eventually, the site could host up to 50 elephants. Some of the elephants could retire in St. Lucie County, while others could be brought in from zoos when their facilities need upgraded. Animals also are expected to be brought in when an elephant loses a mate and needs to be reintroduced to other elephants.

Brevard Zoo Executive Director Keith Winston said he is looking forward to bringing elephants to the Treasure Coast. The Brevard Zoo does not have elephants. Though the facility would not be open to the general public on a daily basis, the zoo could create a partnership with the center for research and bringing student groups.

“We’re really excited about this project,” Winston said. “One of the most charismatic animals we keep in zoos are elephants.”

County staff is still thumbing through the site plan and working with The National Elephant Center to find out more details, Growth Management Director Mark Satterlee said.

Plans call for an initial area of 40-50 acres, a staff of five to six and a 1,600-square-foot observation tower. The nonprofit group had a press conference last February in Houston to announce the move before sending a formal site plan last week. The land is owned by Waste Management, which has a lease agreement with The National Elephant Center. The land has been used for cattle grazing and is zoned for agricultural.

But Nick Atwood, campaigns coordinator for Animal Rights Foundation of Florida, said he is concerned about establishing a breeding ground for the elephants, worried the animals could go to circuses and would prefer the elephants would retire there. Atwood said he had questions about environmental concerns for people and the potential for the spread of disease.

“I was a little disappointed,” Atwood said. “They made it very clear that the purpose of the facility is for breeding. We were hoping for more of a retirement home.”

Barongi said it is important to breed animals in captivity and reiterated the nonprofit’s stance that animals would not be sent to the circus. Barongi said the public should not be concerned about diseases because the animals will be screened before coming to the Treasure Coast.

“If you don’t breed elephants in captivity, you won’t have a self-sustaining population,” Barongi said. “I think it’s safe to say an elephant would never go to the circus.”



• The National Elephant Center will be on 300 acres in western St. Lucie County near the Okeechobee County line on land owned by Waste Management. The company is leasing the land for a nominal sum to the center for 40 years and will give $450,000 to the center over the next three years.

• The land includes open space and watering holes and eventually will include buildings where the elephants can be housed when they are not outdoors. About 900 acres separate it from the Okeechobee County Landfill.

• The center was created by zoos from around the country and will house elephants on an as-needed basis and also provide space for zoo employees to train, conduct research, support breeding and promote conservation efforts.

• It will not be open to visitors, but special visits can be arranged and area students likely will visit it as part of field trips.

• About 290 elephants live at 77 different facilities associated with the Association of Zoos & Aquariums around the country.


Nick Atwood of the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida said he had some concerns about the center. Here are some of his concerns with corresponding comments from Rick Barongi, the vice chairman of The National Elephant Center.

Atwood: Animals could be bred for circuses; Barongi: Animals will not be shipped to circuses.

Atwood: Animals create a large amount of dung; Barongi: Dung will be used as compost and maintained on site.

Atwood: Animals could transmit diseases; Barongi: Animals will be screened for diseases before coming to St. Lucie County.