The city of Fellsmere, at the junction of County Roads 512 and 507, is probably best known for a frog leg festival every January. But 250-acres of old orange groves by the county line will soon be home to something a bit bigger... elephants.
Tuesday, the directors of the National Elephant Center outlined their plans before the Sebastian River Area Chamber of Commerce. The center is a collaboration of 73 zoos nationwide, and could eventually be a retirement home for the nearly 300 elephants in those participating zoos.
"It's also going to be a training center for people to come and learn the best methods for managing elephants," said John Lehnhardt, the Executive Director of the National Elephant Center.
Managing the elephants was an issue when the facility was first discussed in St. Lucie County two years ago. Animal rights groups spoke out against the use of bull hooks, or guides used to control the elephants. Lehnhardt says they will not be used in regular operations and the keepers will not have close interaction with the animals.
"So all elephants that come to us will immediately move into what we call protective contact, that is they will always be worked with a barrier in between us," said Lehnhardt.
"We have different tools when we're in that system. We have a target and a clicker and lots of food reinforcement so when the animal is compliant in their behavior, they get positive reinforcement, added Elephant Center CEO Jeff Bolling.
The Chamber looks at this newest non-profit member as an interesting addition. "Hopefully our business community will respond to them and their needs in terms of volunteers and perhaps funding," said Beth Mitchell, the Executive Director of the Chamber.
While the facility will only be open for limited public tours, the city of Fellsmere is looking for ways to take advantage.
Fellsmere City Manager Jason Nunemaker said the center is,"an opportunity for us to utilize our green space and make it productive and something that's really unique and fits with what we're trying to do as far as eco-tourism."
The plan is to break ground in the next four weeks and have eight to ten elephants on the property by the end of the year.
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