Niabi Zoo's elephants will be headed for "a better life" after the Forest Preserve Committee of the Rock Island County Board voted 21-0 Tuesday to send them to another facility.
And the director of the Coal Valley facility agrees with that decision for Sophie and Babe.
“It was definitely the right decision to make,” said Niabi director Marc Heinzman. “They’ll have a better life for it. It’s best for the elephants.”
Heinzman said the goal is to have Babe, 37, and Sophie, 43, relocated before the weather turns cold.
“Once winter sets in, it’s too cold to move them,” he said.
Rock Island County Board representative Steve Ballard, District 10, who is chair of the Forest Preserve Committee, said he was pleased with the vote.
“It sent a message that everybody had plenty of time for this to sink in and figure out what is best for those two elephants,” Ballard said. “We brought in an expert who assessed the animals and we got a lot of input from the community.
“Overall, I think we did the right thing,” he said. “This meant a lot for the welfare of the animals. We’re in control of these animals and they can’t make decisions for themselves. We have to make sure they’re being taken care of.”
Ballard said it is time to take action because Sophie’s health is deteriorating “faster than what people realize.”
The impetus for the vote came after a review of the pachyderms by elephant expert Alan Roocroft, who was hired by the county to look over the animals and their environment.
He spent two days at Niabi in the early spring, submitting a detailed report of his findings
Roocroft said that zoos should have a minimum of three elephants, because of their highly socialized nature and to prevent devastating grief and isolation in the event of one elephant's death. The indoor barn at Niabi could not accommodate three elephants and, according to Roocroft, should not hold two.
Besides needing a larger herd, Roocroft wrote in his report, Sophie is suffering from foot and wrist ailments, resulting from long months inside a "dark and drafty, depressing barn" while living with arthritis. Both Asian elephants are former circus performers.
The cold Midwest climate and persistent foot problems are preventing Sophie from lying down when she sleeps. For five months out of the year, Roocroft said, she sleeps by leaning against a barn wall.
Rock Island County Board chairman Phil Banaszek said based on that report, “It was time we really do what was best for the elephants.”
Heinzman said the elephants will not be replaced.
“At this point there is no intention to bring elephants back,” he said. “The climate is very tough on them, and that’s something we can’t change.”
There has been no determination of what animals will take the place of the elephants, “but we’ll look at different animals and determine which would be a good fit for us.”
Ballard said Roocroft will be contacted as soon as possible, possibly today, to begin the process of relocating the elephants.