UPDATE: The elephants are expected to land at Fort Worth's Alliance Airport in the early morning hours of March 11. The three zoos revealed in a statement that one of the elephants was dead, and that only 17 elephants would be imported; the Dallas Zoo will get five elephants, not six.
Despite efforts to stop them, the Dallas Zoo and two partnering zoos pulled a fast move on March 8 in their battle to import 18 elephants from the wilds of Swaziland.
The three zoos, which also include Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium and Wichita's Sedgwick County Zoo, pre-emptively sedated the elephants and loaded them onto an airplane, then issued a statement saying that removing them or sedating them again would "subject the elephants to a lot of unnecessary risk," hinting that some of the elephants could die.
"It is in (the elephants') best interest to relocate them [to the U.S.] as soon as possible," said a statement by Dallas Zoo animal health director Chris Bonar. "The elephants that are intended for transport have already been anesthetized. They are one of the most difficult animals in the animal kingdom to safely anesthetize. Any time you anesthetize an elephant it is extremely risky."
Loading the elephants onto the plane set the clock ticking for U.S. District Court Judge John D. Bates, who was forced to approve the import quickly out of concern for the elephants' welfare. The elephants are expected to land in the U.S. within 48 hours.
The move allows the zoos to circumvent an ongoing judicial process and sidestep further negative publicity surrounding their efforts.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued permits to the zoos in February allowing for the import of the 18 elephants, six for each zoo, 15 of which are young females targeted for their breeding potential.
In response, an animal advocacy group called Friends of Animals filed a lawsuit, claiming that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service had a duty to evaluate whether the elephants would suffer social, psychological, behavioral, and physical impacts for the rest of their lives.
The three zoos filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, which had begun to gain media attention. A hearing was scheduled for March 17.
Michael Harris of Friends of Animals described the zoos' move as the elephants being "stolen away before receiving their day in court."
"The underhandedness of this move cannot be understated," he said. "Our scientific understanding of the impacts that confinement has on elephants has grown tremendously. They are likely to suffer some of the very same mental and physical conditions one would expect when a human is placed into confinement."