FELLSMERE — Some 75 federal, state and local officials, along with elephant-care professionals and Fellsmere residents, converged Wednesday on the National Elephant Center's future site to help its officials break ground.
"This is the greatest step made for elephants in my 36 (career) years," center Executive Director John Lehnhardt said, his voice catching.
Lehnhardt recalled meeting his first elephants on Aug. 2, 1976 at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, where he had applied for a keeper position. By the end of the day, he said, he was hooked on the great animals.
Lehnhardt identified M.H. Williams Construction Inc., of Melbourne as the contractor to turn about 25 to 30 acres of orange grove into the estimated $2.5 million initial phase of the 225-acre elephant center on Fellsmere Grade, south of the C54 Canal.
"We should be starting in a couple of weeks," said Mike Williams Jr., the company's project manager. "And about November we'll be finished."
The first phase is to include a barn, a keeper station and four elephant paddocks, with enough pasture for up to 10 elephants.
Lehnhardt said the center board of directors chose Williams partly on the strength of its prior project, the animal hospital at the Brevard Zoo.
The National Elephant Center is a collaboration of 73 zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Lehnhardt said the center will help the zoos care for their elephants, especially when young males reach an age where they would normally leave their family herd and go off on their own.
"It's very, very hard to find a place for an elephant to go," he said. "There's no space to just move elephants among zoos."
The center would offer space for elephants until new zoo space could be arranged, he said. And then, he said, there are elephants kept in private hands, and others that need to go somewhere because their own zoos are no longer able to care for them.
"In the short run, we'll help the population of North American elephants," Lehnhardt said. "In the long run, we'll have training for veterinarians, keepers, curators and elephant managers."
The first phase is expected to house fewer than 10 elephants for the first few years, both the African and Asian species, while the full project, estimated at $12.5 million, is projected to allow for 36 pachyderms in coming years.
"Today an orange grove, tomorrow a pachyderm paradise," said center Chairman Rick Borangi, director of The Dallas Zoo.
Guests, meanwhile, cheered on the project, hailing it as an economic boon as well as a new spot on the map for Fellsmere.
"This is a great link between Indian River and Brevard counties," said state Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne who said he hopes to run for a newly configured district that would include Fellsmere. "It's exciting to see our (Brevard) zoo step out and provide a service."
The Brevard Zoo in Melbourne doesn't have elephants, but is part of the zoo coalition that helped fund the center.
Dave Fuchs, a resident north of Fellsmere for about 12 years, said he thought it will be great to have elephants in the community.
"This is great for the community and the elephant center," he said. "It's a good merger of opportunities."