COAL VALLEY — Those wishing to say their goodbyes to Niabi Zoo elephants Babe and Sophie should make a point of doing so in upcoming weeks.

Zoo officials are close to making a decision on where the pair will spend their golden years, and it soon will be time to pack up all 19,000 pounds of them and head south. Zoo director Marc Heinzman and elephant expert Alan Roocroft have narrowed their search for a zoo or sanctuary in the southern United States to three finalists, Heinzman said last week.

"The only thing I can tell you for sure is they'll be gone by winter," he said. "We've gone to view a few places, the staff and him (Roocroft). Elephants are in high demand. They're not doing a lot of breeding in captivity. It's not like we have to just find a place. We want exactly the right place."

The Rock Island County Forest Preserve Commission, made up of all 25 members of the county board, voted in July to find a new home for Babe and Sophie. The decision followed a report by Roocroft, detailing the Asian elephants' health issues and enclosure inadequacies. One unresolvable problem is the Midwest climate, which is especially harsh on arthritic Sophie, who is 43.

Heinzman said no decisions have been made regarding how the elephants' space will be used when it becomes vacant, but it is prime real estate at Niabi.

"Before we make any decisions, we'll get them squared away," he said. "They are our number-one priority."

More big changes

Zoo officials, along with their fundraising partners, the Niabi Zoological Society, are juggling several major priorities. One of them is the new lion enclosure, which was estimated several years ago to cost $2.3 million. When recent bids exceeded $3 million, construction was delayed.

Meanwhile, the three-lion pride is taking temporary shelter in the old cat house. It was left vacant when Niabi's last remaining tiger died from heart problems in the spring of 2012.

"We didn't make a decision then to stay out of the tiger business, but we knew we could use the space," Heinzman said of the temporary arrangements. "Our collection plan still includes tigers."

Before Niabi can get back into the tiger business — or get more lions, as planned — the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, AZA, must re-accredit the zoo.

The new lion exhibit, and the relocation of Babe and Sophie make AZA re-accreditation more likely. When Niabi's good national standing was lost last fall, the inadequate elephant and lion enclosures were cited as contributing factors. The highly desirable AZA accreditation allows Niabi to trade and borrow animals with other accredited zoos, among other perks.

"The AZA is very encouraging toward us," Heinzman said. "They want us to succeed. We're resolving the issues. They also had an issue with out-of-date animal records, which now are up to date. The lion enclosure is the last big piece we need."

Coming soon: Bigger, better

The old lion exhibit never was ideal.

The sloping enclosure, similar to a ravine, has long kept zoo visitors from getting a good look at the big cats.

Under the new design, modified slightly from the one imagined by former Zoo director Tom Stalf, the ravine is filled, and the much larger yard is elevated to the same level as most of the other exhibits. A feature that has zoo officials particularly enthusiastic is indoor space with large panels of glass, which will be used for a classroom and/or private party space in which visitors will get up-close views of the lions.

"The plans are so cool," Heinzman said. "There will be this Jeep that will be halfway in the enclosure and halfway out. You'll be able to sit in the driver's seat, and the lions will lounge on the Jeep hood — just on the other side of a panel of glass."

Barbara Howe, a member of the zoological society, said the group is working on the additional financing that is needed for the entire enclosure. Board members' goal is to have all the money in place, so the entire project can be completed at once, she said, beginning when the zoo closes for the season in October.

Contractors have estimated an eight-month construction timeframe, which would have the new lion exhibit open in the spring.

"We've started some of it," Heinzman said. "The first thing we have to do is create an access road through the back of the zoo. That part is under construction now."

The larger space for the lions has meant a temporary displacement of their former neighbors, the camels.

"They currently are off display," Heinzman said. "We'll be extending the lion enclosure into the former camel enclosure, and the camels will be relocated."

New enthusiasm

Ultimately, Niabi's collection plan also will account for bears. Although long-time zoo tenants, the bears were sent away about two years ago because their tired enclosure needed to be torn down, and a new exhibit was not on the replacement list at the time. One of the zoological society's most successful investments, the introduction of giraffes, may give zoo visitors the best idea of what modern improvements can do.

A juvenile giraffe born at Niabi recently was adopted out to the zoo in Madison, Wis. Two others went to Oregon and a fourth went to Ohio — each one an example of the zoo's breeding-program success.

Zookeepers also hope to breed the new male red wolf that soon will arrive in Coal Valley, and, ultimately, to bring more baby lions into the world. The new enclosure has space to house five lions, rather than the current three, which could accommodate a younger male lion.

The male, Mufasa, is 18 years old, which is getting close to the end of his mating years.

"This is definitely the beginning of one of the biggest eras of good change for the zoo, especially with the combination of the elephants leaving, new major projects starting, a new capital campaign set to begin soon, some smaller renovations and improvements and the new staff that has recently taken on leadership roles," Heinzman said. "It's definitely something that has me very excited to be a part of Niabi Zoo."