Elephant Center Plan Before St. Lucie Commission Tuesday
2010-01-21

TC Palm.Com
By Susan Burgess

— African and Asian elephants could be roaming their own pastureland in western St. Lucie County by the end of this year if plans to create a national center for elephants are approved by the St. Lucie County Commission on Tuesday.

“We hope to start work on The National Elephant Center this spring and finish by the end of 2010,” said center Vice Chairman Rick Barongi. “We expect to start with 8 to 10 elephants.”

Funds for construction of the $4 million center came from contributions by accredited zoos across the United States, Barongi said. It will serve as a place to send elephants when zoos need to renovate their elephant areas. Also, a few elephants may retire there, and it will include a training program for new elephant keepers.

The county commission’s growth management department is recommending approval of the site plan.

Animal rights groups are opposing it, saying it will merely be a holding area and breeding ground for elephants.

Barongi said that although most elephants will not live there permanently, they will be well cared for, protected with security cameras and an observation tower. They will be indoors at night in stalls, and with habitat similar to what they would find in their native lands.

The center has a 40-year lease on 326 acres owned by Waste Management a quarter mile north of Okeechobee Road bordering Okeechobee County. Access to the center will be from Okeechobee. Just 34 acres of the property will be used for the elephant center, with expansion possible in the future.

“We chose Florida because of the climate,” Barongi said. “We’ve been working since spring on a preservation plan for wetlands. Elephants will be excluded from wetland areas.”

Animal rights groups are opposing the center because it is not a sanctuary for elephants, said Nick Atwood, campaigns director for the Animal Rights Foundation.

“They continue to say this is a sanctuary like Save the Chimps in St. Lucie County where chimpanzees retire, but it isn’t,” Atwood said. “We want to make sure the commissioners understand that.”

Atwood said he and members of People for Ethical Treatment of Animals and other groups are hoping to speak at the meeting although it is not a public hearing.

Charles Grande, chairman of the county commission, said Wednesday that although he’s excited about the prospect of having a national center for elephants in the county, he also has some questions about it.

“I want to be certain that the elephant center is really a positive resource for elephants,” he said.

ELEPHANT CENTER

• The Jan. 26 county commission meeting starts at 9 a.m. in the third floor meeting room at 2300 Virginia Ave.

• To see detailed plans for the National Elephant Center, along with letters for and against it, click here.

• Call the county’s growth management department at 462-1400 if there is any difficulty viewing it.

• To see the National Elephant Center's Web site, with details and drawings, click here.

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