FELLSMERE — The last time members of the public visited the grounds of the National Elephant Center in Fellsmere in April, it consisted of hundreds of acres of orange groves and a really big dream. Seven months later, it’s beginning to look like Jurassic Park.
That’s because the animals they’re expecting come January will rival the legends of Tyrannosaurus Rex for height and weight.
Fortunately, the zoo elephants who will come there are herbivores and will be kept well-fed and content at the center.
Once the $15 million facility is complete, it will offer more acreage for elephant habitat than the elephant exhibit space in all the zoos in the United States, according to the center’s Chief Operations Officer Jeff Bolling.
The National Elephant Center will house both African and Asian elephants.
African elephants can grow up to seven tons and measure up to 13 feet at the shoulder.
Asian elephants, slightly smaller by comparison than their African cousins, reach weights of two to five tons and measure up to about 10 feet high.
The size of the animals – and the potential for dozens to be residing there in small herds – makes the need to build sturdy enclosures a top priority.
Construction crews are erecting massive wooden pilings – nearly 450 of them – and securing them with concrete being trekked down the Fellsmere Grade by a parade of CEMEX trucks.
One cubic yard of concrete is poured down each hole so the poles that will form the elephant enclosures can withstand 7,000 pounds of pressure.
“We’re real happy with the progress, especially with the company that’s been working on this,” said Bolling. “It will be a post and cable system with the posts being 10 feet high and going 10 feet deep.”
Contractors MH Williams Construction out of Melbourne, which built much of the Brevard Zoo, will attach reinforced steel every thirty inches up the posts and the whole enclosure will be bordered by chain-link fencing.
A 200-foot-long barn rising 38 feet high out of the cleared citrus grove will serve as a processing and veterinary facility where the elephants can be tested, treated for any concerns and assimilated into the herd.
At full capacity, the barn will be able to hold 18 elephants.
A chute system will direct elephants to their assigned enclosures.
Bolling explained the two species need to be kept separate because there are a few diseases that are unique to either the Asians or Africans, and the keepers don’t want those viruses to infect the other species.
“The Asian elephants will be on the opposite side,” Bolling said as he gestured toward another part of the property while speaking to the small group of Fellsmere residents along for the tour.
The center will rely heavily on volunteers and Ernie and Jan Wilson, who moved to Fellsmere about six years ago, are eager to start.
The couple was along for the ride for the sightseeing jaunt, as was Vice Mayor Joel Tyson and Fellsmere resident Julie Decker.
Sister publication Sebastian River News staff was given exclusive access to this tour of the grounds.
“It’s amazing, we can’t wait ‘till they get the elephants down here,” Ernie Wilson said. “We were out here for the groundbreaking and I always told Jeff I’d be a volunteer. Jeff is so motivated and cares so much for the elephants.”
Volunteers and staff will enjoy the only frequent opportunities to view the elephants because the center will not be open to the public.
Bolling said he will open it up for tour groups from zoos or for groups that request special tours.
He said there is also the potential of hosting field trips for local school groups.
Ernie Wilson said the National Elephant Center would be one more thing, like the ever-popular Fellsmere Frog Leg Festival, that would “put Fellsmere on the map.”
He said he would do any needed task, even handling piles of elephant manure.
Jan Wilson joked that the center could give her husband “a shovel-ready job.”
Asian elephants are an endangered species and African elephants are threatened, but they will be pampered when they reach Indian River County.
“Really the focus is to give the elephants, environmentally, everything that they need,” Bolling said. “We’ll seed it with different foods, hay and grass and we left some of the orange trees.”
Workers are building covered areas where elephants can go to get out of the heat, and the enclosures will have water features so elephants can play in the mud or give themselves a bath.
A keeper headquarters, which is nearly complete, will serve many purposes from giving staff, volunteers and visitors a home base to storing vehicles and supplies. It will have locker rooms, restrooms and offices.
The back patio of the building will be a prime elephant-watching spot.
“I’m pretty excited about being able to take my lunch out here and see my elephants,” Bolling said.
The center will invite 73 zoos around North America to send the giant mammals when they need to repair or upgrade their own elephant enclosures.
Currently, zoos ship their animals to other zoos for the time it takes to repair or rebuild. Bolling estimates that elephants will stay between one and two years in Fellsmere.
The center has a full 510 acres of land near the Sun Ag compound. When all phases are completed, there will be about 225 acres for the elephants to roam.
The first phase will be about 30 acres is expected to be elephant-ready in early 2013.
The elephants will come from large zoos and possibly from Disney’s Animal Kingdom, where Bolling used to head up the elephant program. Prior to that, he worked with elephants at the Indianapolis Zoo.
Bolling said leaders and member zoos from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums have raised the seed money for the National Elephant Center, but donations are still needed.
The organization is being run from the Brevard Zoo and a wish list of items, with cash being right at the top, is available at www.NationalElephantCenter.org.