FELLSMERE, Fla. - National Elephant Center officials are expected next week to hammer out a budget and timeline for turning their dream of a 225-acre ranch for training and retiring zoo elephants into a reality this year in the city's agricultural northwest area, south of the C-54 Canal.
"We have made a decision on a construction company," center Chairman Rick Borangi said Wednesday. "They're in the ($2.5 million) ballpark. So there's no surprises."
He declined to identify the builder, whose proposal was selected from a handful of others, until the center's board can notify other finalists vying for the job. He said his organization still has to negotiate details, such as areas of possible cost-savings, before awarding the contract.
The National Elephant Center is a collaboration of 73 zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Borangi, director of the Houston Zoo, will be in Miami next week for a meeting with fellow AZA directors. He said those involved in the National Elephant Center also will meet as a subgroup to advance their own project and might be able to announce their builder.
Borangi said 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.
Contrary to some public speculation, Borangi said he didn't envision fences having to deal with elephants charging.
"It's a big area, so there won't be pressure on the perimeter fence," he said.
In fact, he said, closer quarters inside the barn would be where stronger materials are needed.
He estimated the first phase might start construction in two months and be complete seven months later. After that, he said, the board would have an open house for Fellsmere area residents to come see the controversial facility and learn how professionally it would be run.
"This would be invitation-only for people who live in the area," he said. "They're the ones with a stake in this."
Members of regional animal-rights groups, who have been warning that center staff would control the elephants using "bullhooks", or guides, probably won't be invited, he said.
"Oh no, why would we want this open house to become like a circus?" he asked.
Because animal-rights activists typically oppose keeping elephants in captivity, Borangi said, they wouldn't approve of anything the National Elephant Center was planning.
However, Nick Atwood, campaign coordinator for the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida, said he was disappointed to be left out of an upcoming open house. He said the reality of animal-rights politics isn't so black-and-white.
"We may feel differently about captivity, but we're also realistic," he said. "Those elephants are not going back to Africa or Asia. So we just want to make sure they're being kept in the best way possible."
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