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."

(8) comments


"Breeding success"? This article talks about giraffes born recently being adopted, but it failed to mention this...


Bravo to the zoo for doing the right thing and setting an example for other zoos where highly complex and endangered animals suffer in severe confinement. If you and your kids really love elephants, your money is better spent in donations to elephant sanctuaries like PAWS or The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee where they have a great quality of life. We should teach our kids to treat these animals humanely or risk losing them altogether. You want an award-winning Times article, then here's your answer:


For crimeney's sake, put them in a sanctuary. They've been making "their owners" money for years; give them a chance to truly be an elephant in a natural setting.

firstborn daughter
firstborn daughter

Oh God NO, not Ringling.They worked for Ringling many years, doing many hundreds of shows. Many blessings to Sophie and Babe, and everyone who contributed on their behalf. May they stay together and live the rest of their lives peacefully.


Maybe they could sell the elephants to Ringling.


Please tell me that was sarcasm, Klaatu. If not, I would just like to encourage you to educate yourself about circus cruelty. It's a horrible life for any animal, ESPECIALLY pachyderms. In the wild, elephants can & do walk many miles a day. They hang out with their mom, sisters & babies. They take a dip in the water - they can even swim. They go out to eat - chowing on leaves all day. Mothers & calves are closely bonded. They need this excersize & social interaction; without it, they get depressed & act out. NOW, an elephant in the CIRCUS lives a different life. They are taken from their mother's @ an early age, they are poked, prodded, tied up & broken into submission. Do you think elephants are BORN knowing tricks? How do you think they get elephants to balance on a tiny stool with a bow on it's head while juggling a bunch of little kids with it's trunk?? ;) Not only that, but they put them in cages & bring them all over the country. Imagine a road trip. Now imagine you ride in a cage/crate, you can't relax, wood floors, no windows & no bathroom or snack breaks. Oh yeah, and no talking! And they do this day after day, year after year. In chains. And if you get out of line? We're gonna poke you with a bullhook. For real.
I have never understood why people feel they DESERVE to be entertained by or even SEE certain animals. What does some elephant eating some leaves in Africa, living it's life, chillin - have to do with you or me? Does that elephant OWE you something? Sure, we all wanna see an elephant, but elephants live in Africa & Asia. Go, see them if you want to, but if you can't: Life is tough, move on. What I'm really trying to say is: it's worth thinking about & the stuff I just told you about is just the tip of the iceberg. I'm a pretty strong encourager, so forgive me if I came off sounding "however." No doubt you are a wonderful person. Thanks for reading.


I still wamt to know what they are doing with the money they had raised so far for the new elephant enclosure that will never be needed now. Seems odd to me that no one has apparemtly asked that question. We gave money to them as our children love the elephants, but a lot of good it did. Any help here Times Staff?


The Times? You jest right? Barb is more concerned about animals. Money? Nahhh

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