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Elephants shouldn't pack their trunks yet

Elephants shouldn't pack their trunks yet

Activists have asked the feds for a delay in zoos' importation of animals

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HENRY DOORLY ZOO

Several animal rights groups are seeking to delay action on a request that could bring six African elephants to Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium.

A lawyer with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, writing on behalf of five animal welfare organizations, has asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for an extension of the public comment period while the wildlife service decides whether to allow the importation of 18 elephants from southern Africa.

The elephants, currently living in Swaziland, would head to three American zoos, in Omaha, Wichita and Dallas.

"Really we just want more time to be able to thoroughly do our research," Rachel Matthews, litigation counsel for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Foundation, said Monday.

Omaha zoo officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

In an interview with the Wichita Eagle, Mark Reed, director of Wichita's Sedgwick County Zoo, said the request for an extension is a way for opponents of the elephant relocation to buy time to stop the process. If delays persist, it would put off the planned Memorial Day weekend opening of Wichita's elephant exhibit, he said.

In November 2014, the partner zoos filed for a permit to bring the elephants to the United States. In October, the government posted online an 18page environmental assessment and set up a forum for public comments. The comment period is due to close on Nov. 23.

In her October letter to the wildlife service, Carney Anne Nasser, a lawyer with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, wrote to request public access to the full 1,000-plus page application submitted by the Dallas Zoo on behalf of the partner zoos and a 60-day extension of the public comment period following the release of the extra materials.

The full application has since been released. Nasser's letter is undersigned by representatives of the Performing Animal Welfare Society, the PETA Foundation, In Defense of Animals and Born Free USA.

Zoo officials have said they are acquiring the elephants from Big Game Parks Trust in Swaziland, which was otherwise planning to kill the elephants. The herd is overgrazing the land in the Mkhaya Game Reserve and Hlane National Park, causing habitat destruction and loss of food for endangered black rhinos.

Per the deal, the zoos agreed to contribute $450,000 to the park's black rhino conservation efforts over the next five years.

Matthews said it's wrong to take the elephants from the wild and she doesn't believe sending the elephants to zoos is the only solution.

Last week, Dennis Pate, CEO and executive director of the Omaha zoo, told The World-Herald that he expected a decision from the wildlife service about a week following the closure of the public comment period. Signs, he said, pointed in favor of the service issuing the import permits.

The wildlife service approved a similar permit to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, Florida in 2003.

Contact the writer: 402-444-3131, blake.ursch@owh.com, twitter.com/blakeursch_owh

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