Sunday, March 11, 2012

Elephant Center's new director to outline facility's plans Tuesday

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After 32 years working with elephants in various zoos, John Lehnhardt says he's in familiar territory as the executive director for the National Elephant Center planned for Fellsmere.

Lehnhardt, who was one of the center's founding board members, agreed in January to be the first executive director and steer the project to opening.

"I tried to retire," he said Wednesday, chuckling at leaving his most recent job last year, as animal operations director for Disney's Animal Kingdom near Orlando, only to be back to work again.

The National Elephant Center, a collaboration of 73 zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, is planned for 225 agricultural-zoned acres south of the C-54 Canal in northern Fellsmere.

Leonhardt is scheduled to discuss the facility's plans for pachyderms — and its means of using positive reinforcement instead of bullhooks — when the Sebastian River Area Chamber of Commerce meets at noon Tuesday at Capt. Hiram's Resort on the Indian River Lagoon. It will be one of the first public meetings after six months of behind-the-scenes work getting the center approved.

"I think the idea of having an elephant facility in North (Indian River) County, in close proximity to a lot of people, is very exciting," chamber Executive Director Beth Mitchell said. "I don't know why, but people react in an almost visceral way about elephants."

Since Fellsmere is part of the Sebastian Chamber's service area, she said, the National Elephant Center would be its newest nonprofit member.

The first eight or nine elephants may arrive sometime this year, board Chairman Rick Borangi has estimated. And the center could eventually house up to 40 elephants in coming years.

The first phase would include 4 or 5 acres of pasture, drinking-water ponds, a barn large enough to hold nine elephants at night, a keeper's work area, fencing strong enough to withstand a leaning elephant and upgrades to the site's electrical system.

But exactly when it will start construction is still unknown, Lehnhardt said. The board is still negotiating with a contractor it has selected, but won't identify the company until a deal is reached, he said.

The center will be used to breed baby elephants, he said, but also to house young male elephants, he said. One thing the center staff won't do, Lehnhardt said, is use bull hooks, or guides, to control elephants. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums has ordered facilities with elephants to switch, by September 2014, from close interaction to protective barriers between the keepers and the pachyderms.

With positive reinforcement and protective contact, Lehnhardt said, an elephant learns to approach various targets, such as raising its foot to a certain spot, through the use of food as an incentive.

Courtesy of John Goodall

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