The Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium and its partner zoos sent an airplane to Swaziland, sedated 18 elephants and loaded them up Tuesday, forcing a judge to make an emergency decision to allow the transport.
All signs point to elephants arriving in the United States late Wednesday or Thursday, depending on the travel itinerary.
After temporarily freezing the import while he deliberated, U.S. District Judge John D. Bates decided to allow the import for fear that sedating the elephants an additional time would cause more harm.
“The defendant-intervenor zoos have represented that the elephants have already been sedated and placed in transit to the airport in Swaziland,” Bates said in his decision.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued permits in February, prompting Friends of Animals, an animal-rights group, to sue in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. The zoos entered the lawsuit as defendants.
The action by the zoos a week and a half before a scheduled hearing in the lawsuit came as a surprise.
“They had every opportunity to tell us and the court that they were intending to do this,” said Michael Harris, the lawyer for Friends of Animals. “Obviously there is nothing technically legally binding them not to do this, but I think it’s sort of beyond the spirit of something one would expect of an adversary.”
The three zoos — Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium, Dallas Zoo and Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas — released a joint statement shortly before 7 p.m. Tuesday.
“It is in (the elephants’) best interest to relocate them as soon as possible,” the statement says. “Swaziland is in a state of national disaster due to severe, historic drought that has killed tens of thousands of animals. Food throughout the region is scarce.”
Harris asked Bates, of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, for an immediate freeze on the import Tuesday morning. Harris said he learned about the zoos’ action from an anonymous Swazi official, who sent a photograph of a plane on the runway about 7:30 a.m. Swaziland time on Tuesday. Harris then traced the plane’s tail number back to Kansas City and eventually to the zoos.
Bates, who is in Namibia for business, then ordered the zoos to wait to move the elephants until he could make an emergency decision, Harris said.
Bates held a teleconference Tuesday afternoon, about midnight in Africa, with attorneys for both sides. He then took about an hour to deliberate.
Ultimately, Bates chose to deny Friends of Animals’ request shortly before 5 p.m. Omaha time.
Bates ordered the zoos to file statements of support from one or more veterinarians saying a second round of sedation would be too dangerous.
In his decision, Bates said the court was “not able to definitively resolve the issue” because of the short timeline and limited information from the teleconference. “But it appears there is at least some risk to the elephants” if the import had been blocked.
Harris said he believed that the elephants would depart around 7:30 p.m. Omaha time on Tuesday evening, or 3:30 a.m. in Swaziland.
Harris, who received the news of the judge’s decision while on the phone with The World-Herald, said he’s unsure where the lawsuit now stands.
“We’re not going to be able to keep the animals from coming to these zoos, that’s for sure,” he said.
The Omaha zoo’s CEO and executive director, Dennis Pate, has said that once the elephants arrive, they would take a few weeks to acclimate before going on display. The African Grasslands, which includes the elephant exhibit, is scheduled to open in time for Memorial Day weekend.