Saturday, March 31, 2012

Elephant center in Indian River County highlights issue behind zoo animals bill

Groundbreaking is planned next week for the National Elephant Center in Indian River County, which supporters and opponents alike of HB 1117 say represents their arguments on the bill.

HB 1117 would allow zoos to place elephants and other ungulate (hoofed) mammals on state lands with Cabinet approval. The bill was sent to Gov. Rick Scott on Friday and he has until April 14 to take action.

Supporters say the bill will help conserve threatened species by providing space for elephants, giraffes and herd animals that is lacking in zoos. Opponents say the bill would sacrifice state land needed for native plants and animals and that private lands instead should be used.

At the National Elephant Center near Fellsmere, up to 40 African and Indian elephants eventually will be able to roam and mate on 225 acres, according to a news release.

The land is former citrus groves that are being leased, said Keith Winsten, executive director of the Brevard Zoo and a board member of the National Elephant Center. The elephants will be behind heavy-duty fences 10 feet high and meet strict state regulations for security.

The first phase covering 25 acres will be for up to nine elephants, Winsten said. The estimated cost of the first phase is $2.5 million.

The center, he said, is far from any development, in Fellsmere about six miles away, with the closest house at least two miles away.

The National Elephant Center, although planned years before HB 1117 was filed in the Legislature, is an example of the kind of operation that could be placed on state lands to save other African species, said Larry Killmar, president of the Florida Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Florida provides the climate and landscape more closely resembling Africa than other parts of the nation, he said. Space is needed to gather animals from zoos in one location for mating and research.

Zoo populations for some species have been too slow to increase -- if at all, Killmar said. Elephants, or example, must be at least 9 years old to begin reproducing and it takes 24 months for one to be born.

"We can continue doing what we are doing -- I have been doing it 43 years," he said. "We can do it looking at (population) graphs that are flat or barely going up."

"You are not replacing the animals that are dying in most cases in these populations," he said.

Audubon of Florida last week called on Scott to veto the bill, which passed the House 113-2 and passed the Senate 39-1.

While Audubon supports the zoos' conservation efforts, the group says fencing off areas would prevent public access to conservation lands and the zoo animals pose risks to threatened Florida wildlife.

Julie Wraithmell, the group's wildlife policy coordinator, said the National Elephant Center shows that private lands are available rather than using state conservation lands.

"This is not a temporary use of the property -- let's be honest about it," she said. "It is intended to be a long-term use of the land which automatically takes (environmental) restoration of the property off the table."

But Killmar said private lands are not available, or there are restrictions on its use and other factors that make it unsuitable for zoo animals.

Killmar said zoos want to use pastures that now are being leased for livestock grazing and they don't want to infringe upon sensitive wildlife habit.

And he said zoos don't have designs on any particular tracts -- yet.

"We still got a long road ahead of us," Killmar said. "If the governor signs it we have a lot of work left. It is giving us an opportunity to get started."

'The usage of state land to keep and raise non native species doesn't seem like a wise idea. I for one was under the impression that it was private land being used.'

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