FELLSMERE, Fla. (AP) -- Forget peanuts. In the heart of Florida's citrus grove region, it's the oranges elephants are after.
At the newly opened National Elephant Center in Fellsmere, Fla., the pachyderms have discovered how to pluck the fruit from the trees with their trunks and pop it into their mouths.
Fresh Valencia oranges are not the only thing that makes the 200-acre center unique. It is also the only such site operated by the U.S. zoo community to house displaced elephants.
The center is open to two categories of the mammoth mammals: those sent for a limited stay by zoos that need to temporarily free up space for renovations or breeding; and elephants that need a permanent home when their previous institutional or private owners can no longer care for them.
The center's primary goal is to ensure the elephant's long-term survival. The animal is listed as endangered, or at high risk of extinction, in Asia, and vulnerable in Africa.
"There's an estimate that maybe 10 percent of the entire African elephant population was poached for ivory last year," John Lehnhardt said. "Give that 10 or 15 years, and there may be nothing left."
Currently residing at the center are four African elephants whose permanent home is Disney's Animal Kingdom, located about an hour north of the refuge.
Moyo, a 32-year-old female with only one tusk, was the first to discover and appreciate the oranges. She is accompanied by her calves, 10-year-old Tufani and 5-year-old Tsavo; and Thandi, a 33-year-old female affectionately known as the group's "auntie."
Tufani is starting to grow up and the older females are trying to move him out of the group, which typically only includes females and calves. Adult males live alone and the center is set up to help him in that rite of passage.
"It's a good place for transitioning for this young boy from his family group" while still allowing him to be close to them, Lehnhardt said. "They need to go out there and compete with other males. Learn the hierarchy."
The family spends most of its days roaming a 25-acre patch that includes a pond and muddy area.
Lehnhardt, who has worked with elephants for four decades at Disney and elsewhere, says he hopes eventually to take advantage of the site's full 225 acres, which he envisions with an education center and five barns to house up to a dozen elephants or more.
"A lot more elephants could live here and live here very well," he said.
The land was leased in September 2011 from a private citrus grove for 40 years at $1 a year. That allows for the bulk of funding, which comes mostly from roughly 70 zoos, to cover construction costs estimated at least $2.4 million, and operating costs that reach about $50,000 a month. Most of the operating expenses pay for supplemental food for the elephants, although the property provides roughly 100 different varieties of plants, almost all of which are edible. The elephants are foraging on them as they would in the wild.
The center's board of directors originally set their sights on a larger, 326-acre parcel in St. Lucie County, but the county wanted to impose limits on the number of elephants on site and require a pledge from the center that it would not use bull hooks on the animals. The hooks look like pokers and are used in some circuses to train and discipline elephants.
The center did not make that commitment to get the St. Lucie property but now has in Fellsmere. No bull hooks were seen on the property during a recent visit.
The elephants arrived in May — peak orange season — and Lehnhardt says Moyo was the first to discover the fruit. Smelling the trees, she tried to grab one that kept getting away from her. Finally, she sucked the orange with the end of her trunk and put it in her mouth.
"Then you saw her go, 'Oh my God,' and she started grabbing and shoving oranges down her mouth as fast as she could," Lehnhardt said. Moyo and her companions roamed from row to row, feeding on roughly 300 oranges each a day, until not a single one remained. Come next spring, they'll be at it again.
"We were surprised about that because generally citrus hasn't been something you feed elephants," said John Lehnhardt, the center's volunteer executive director. "We didn't think they would be all that excited, but they discovered how to pick the oranges themselves."
On a recent morning visit, the elephants were called from the habitat to the barn for a bath and medical checkup. Each elephant was brought in separately, through moving steel bars and gates resembling a maze. Jeff Bolling, the center's chief operations officer, held a bucket of food — some elephants were given bite-size Twizzlers — while using a clicker to reinforce their good behavior. All were fed pellet-sized bites of manufactured grain made specifically for elephants.
"Good. Steady. Good job," Bolling told Thandi as she turned to get her other side washed. Bolling has worked with her for 15 years at Disney and the two know each other well. She allowed Bolling to scratch her tongue and throw food in her mouth. "You're a good girl," he told her as her worn-out tusks knocked on the steel bars, creating a ringing sound that drowned out the sound of the clicker.
With the other elephants, particularly troublemaker Tufani, the caretakers distance themselves at trunk's length for safety, even though both Lenhhardt and Bolling were at Animal Kingdom in Orlando when he was born.
Disney will eventually decide whether to take the elephants back, leave them at the center indefinitely or break up the group and send them to other institutions. The situation has drawn some criticism from other animal welfare groups, which say the elephants shouldn't be moved frequently.
"That's really like a revolving door for the elephants," said Catherine Doyle, director of science, research and advocacy for the Performing Animal Welfare Society in northern California. The eight Asian and African elephants at her sanctuary are there indefinitely.
"If you are really trying to do what's right for an elephant, you would be providing a lifelong home for these animals and you would be trying to establish larger social groups that were stable and permanent."
Some advocates say that if the center starts offering lifelong care for the animals, it could fulfill a need in North America for a place where elephants' health can be monitored and the elderly and neglected properly cared for.
"They would be perfect candidates to retire there," said Nick Atwood, campaigns coordinator with Animal Rights Foundation of Florida.
The center's directors have considered also welcoming other threatened and endangered animals, such as rhinos. For now, though, the focus will remain on elephants.
"This is my retirement giveback to elephants," Lehnhardt said, a way to help a species that "was very kind to me over 37 years."
"They are going to have to carry me out in a box," Lehnhardt, 65, said, his voice cracking. "And that day will be great. It would have been very worth it."
Disney's Animal Kingdom is part of The Walt Disney Co.
Follow Suzette Laboy on Twitter: https://twitter.com/SuzetteLaboy
- Living Nature