- Associated Press - Saturday, May 7, 2016

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) - Six elephants brought to a Kansas zoo from southern Africa earlier this year are settling in ahead of their exhibit’s grand opening scheduled for Memorial Day weekend.

The elephants arrived March 11 in at the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita from the southern African country of Swaziland, which is in the throes of a drought that has made food scarce.

They were part of a shipment of 17 elephants brought to the U.S. in a partnership involving zoos in Wichita, Dallas and Omaha, Nebraska, The Wichita Eagle (http://bit.ly/24A8uOw ) reported. The zoos in Wichita and Omaha each received six elephants while the one in Dallas got five.

They joined the Sedgwick County Zoo’s lone elephant, Stephanie, which had been without companions for more than a year.

The elephants will live in a new exhibit named after zoo director Mark Reed, who led the $10.6 million fundraising campaign. It will be called Reed Family Elephants of the Zambezi River Valley.

“I thought maybe someday it might be a holding barn behind the scenes or something like that when I retired,” Reed said.

The three zoos applied last fall for import permits from a federal agency, expecting a legal fight from animal-rights and conservation groups that oppose keeping elephants in zoos. Friends of Animals, based in Connecticut, sued the federal government for issuing the permits, claiming the mental and physical toll of captivity wasn’t considered in the permit decision.

“We knew that their lawsuit was very, very weak; weak enough that you might notice none of the other activists joined them,” Reed said.

Of the six that arrived at Sedgwick County Zoo, five are female and most are 6, 7 or 8 years old.

“They felt totally comfortable in 24 to 48 hours,” Reed said. “All but one of them learned what the automatic drinkers were and how they worked. They had never seen a building before.”

The elephants came in skinnier than the zoo had hoped because of the drought, but they’re slowly gaining weight, Reed said.

A sneak preview for zoo members begins Wednesday, with the exhibit to open to the public May 27.

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Information from: The Wichita (Kan.) Eagle, http://www.kansas.com

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