FELLSMERE — Dozens of Fellsmere residents, including city officials, county representatives and those from the State Legislature descended on what will soon become the National Elephant Center off Fellsmere Grade Road, halfway between Babcock and the Stick Marsh. Officials from the center marveled at the support and commitment from the local community during the ground breaking ceremony.
“We have landed in the right place,” said Executive Director John Lehnhardt of the reaction from the public. “It’s really overwhelming.”
The ground breaking marked the end of the 8-year lead-up to making the National Elephant Center a reality. In 2004, member zoos of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums formed a committee to raise funds and craft a plan for a center that would serve as a way to provide support for elephants, management and training.
“Today is the greatest day,” Lehnhardt said, pausing to push back tears that began to well up in his eyes and to clear his choked up throat. “Today is the greatest step for elephants. I couldn’t be happier.”
It took two years, but “we realized we could make this happen,” Lehnhardt said, noting it took another six years with “luck, good fortune and karma” to get to this point – breaking ground on a site for the center.
“It’s another first for Fellsmere,” Fellsmere Mayor Susan Adams said of having the National Elephant Center come to the city. The center is a first of its kind in North America.
“We are committed to the success of this organization,” she added. “I just can’t say enough good things…We can’t wait for the first elephant to arrive!”
Rick Barongi, the center’s chairman, said coming to Fellsmere was two years in the making. It was then that the city reached out to the center – as many other communities were doing – and pitched Fellsmere for the site.
He joked that, though he lived in Central Florida, he had no clue where Fellsmere was. But after visiting the potential site, seeing its expansive size, the quality of the property and the city’s support, he knew they had to consider Fellsmere.
“This was the perfect place for elephants,” Barongi said.
The National Elephant Center had first selected a property in St. Lucie County, but the lack of governmental and community support made the center reconsider Fellsmere.
Dr. Robert Dale, a member of the center’s Board of Directors, said he can’t wait for the center to get up and running so he can continue his 20-year research of the animals. He explained that, though the main purpose of the center is to provide zoos elephant support, it would also be a place where researches can continue to gather information about the animals and develop better management practices.
For his part, Dr. Dale has been studying elephant calves, working to set benchmarks and developmental milestones such as those developed for human babies.
The National Elephant Center has a four-phase plan for converting a 225-acre citrus grove into a “pachyderm paradise” that could take about 10 years to complete and $12- to $13 million.
The first phase will encompass about one-fourth of the site and include a large barn with enough space to house both African and Asian elephants separately, connected paddocks, four pastures totaling about 20 acres, and a keeper work center. The first phase is estimated to cost about $2.5 million and would house around 10 elephants to start.
The pastures will be equipped with mud wallows, ponds, dust bathing areas, shade structures and other natural features, along with countless citrus trees the elephants are expected to play with.
“That’s what elephants are good at,” Lehnhardt said of elephants’ play drive.
He said that some areas will be cleared of citrus trees to make way for the construction of the keeper center and the barn, but the vast majority of the trees will remain standing – until the elephants get at them.
Those trees that are torn down for construction will ultimately become play fodder for the elephants, according to Lehnhardt.
MH Williams Construction Group, of Melbourne, has been hired to builder the barn and center and expects to have work completed in about 8 months – provided hurricanes don’t impede progress.
“It’s a specialty project for us,” said Michael Williams Jr.
The firm plans to use thick cables and posts to contain the elephants and other fencing around the site to keep would-be trespassers out.
Indian River County Commissioner Joe Flescher said that the site in Fellsmere was perfect for such an endeavor – caring for elephants – and that, in the future, he could see the National Elephant Center generating economic growth for the county as elephant keepers and zoo officials from across the country come to visit the center and stick around and fall in love with the surrounding area.
He also said the center’s partnership with local schools – providing tours for school children – could serve as a catalyst for a new generation of zoologists.
“It’s another flag on the map” for Indian River County and Fellsmere, the commissioner said, and a boon for the city, which has worked to diversify its development. “It’s always nice to be the first of firsts.”