St. Lucie Commissioners' Scrutiny May Drive Away Proposed Elephant Sanctuary

The Palm Beach Post News
By Cara Fitzpatrick

— It might have been the question about elephant herpes.

Or the one about strapping down pregnant elephants during labor. Or, perhaps more importantly, just where the elephant poo would be spread if St. Lucie County became home to a national elephant center.

Three weeks after St. Lucie County commissioners voted unanimously to allow The National Elephant Center, a temporary home for Asian and African elephants, to open on a 34-acre site near the Okeechobee County line, representatives for the nonprofit organization say they may not be coming here after all.

The reason? They didn't like the tenor of commissioners' questions, which lasted for about five hours, or the restrictions placed on their operations.

"It went on forever. It was like, 'Whoa,'" said Rick Barongi, chairman for the center, which is a collaboration of zoos accredited by the Maryland-based Association of Zoos & Aquariums. "It's having people who don't know your business tell you how to manage your business."

In the works for about two years, the $4 million center was expected to be built on part of a 326-acre site owned by Waste Management Inc. The entrance to the proposed center would be on a dirt road in Okeechobee County. Waste Management gave the group a $1 annual lease for 40 years.

Elephants would use the private center as a temporary home during rehabilitation or because their zoo quarters were being remodeled. Some breeding also might be done there.

Commissioners, who received about 600 letters of concern from animal rights groups before the vote, limited the number of elephants that could be on the site at one time to 10 and forbade the group to use bullhooks, which resemble fire pokers, to control the elephants.

Animal rights activists say bullhooks injure elephants. Many zoo workers say the tool can protect them from the large animals, if necessary. Female elephants can weigh 8,000 pounds, while males can weigh 13,000 pounds.

Commissioners also questioned the practice of tethering female elephants during labor, asked whether the elephants should be tested for tuberculosis using a "trunk-wash method," and expressed concern about the potential spread of disease, including herpes.

Commissioner Chris Dzadovsky, who said he didn't like the idea of tethering pregnant elephants, said St. Lucie's "world-renowned" cattle ranchers didn't tether their cattle during labor.

For representatives of the elephant center, it was just a bit too much. Barongi said the group, while hoping the commissioners will be more flexible, is looking at other sites.

Commissioners, however, were surprised to learn of the group's concern.

Chairman Charles Grande said commissioners had "a lot to learn and understand."

Dzadovsky said he wanted to ensure that the proposed center would be of the highest quality and didn't understand the group's concerns.

"They got approval. I don't know what more they want," he said.

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