National Elephant Center provides retirement home for aging elephants

Center funded by 73 zoos around nation

By Jacey Birch - Anchor/Animal Advocate , John Lyon

FELLSMERE, Fla. - An estimated 500 Asian and African elephants live in North America's zoos, animal parks, and circuses, and they occasionally spend time or retire at the National Elephant Center near Vero Beach.

The center manages and houses the pachyderms at its 225-acre facility.

"There is something in their eyes. There is a level of awareness and compassion in there that I love," said Jeff Bolling, CEO of The National Elephant Center.

Bolling helped give Thandi, a 9 feet tall, 4-and-a-half ton elephant her daily bath. He has been caring for elephants for 27 years.

Thandi also received a dental check, then was treated to an apple. She and her family -- the matriarch, 32-year-old Moyo, and two younger male bulls, Tufani and Tsavo -- are temporarily at the center, spending most of their days and nights in a fenced 25-acre field.

Thandi eats 250 pounds of food during the day. The center is on land once used as a citrus grove, and it didn't take long for the mammoths to discover the sweetness of leftover Valencia oranges.

"Suddenly, one gets one in her trunk puts it in her mouth and you just see the eyes, and then everybody filed suit and they wouldn't come back in for three days," said Executive Director John Lehnhardt.

The family arrived in May from Walt Disney's Animal Kingdom as handlers move 10-year-old Tufani out of the group. In the elephant world, adult males live alone.

"We expect that over time, other young males that are eventually pushed out of their breeding groups might come and join us here," said Lehnhardt.

Seventy-three zoos across the U.S. fund the center, which offers a temporary or retirement home for elephants.

"We want to be able to provide what any elephant needs," said Lehnhardt, who recently retired from Animal Kingdom where he was the park's first elephant curator. "I love elephants, I've worked with them for 37 years, and I can't think of anything more valuable to do with my time, in my retirement, than to give back to elephants."

Lehnhardt said the center is working to preserve the pachyderms, which can live into their 60s. He added that last year, 10 percent of the African elephant population was poached for ivory. 

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