(CN) - Animal rights group Friends of Animals sued in Federal Court this week to reverse a Fish and Wildlife Service decision allowing three American zoos to import 18 elephants from Swaziland.
The U.S. zoos in question are the Dallas Zoo, the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, and Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium.
Friends of Animals' lawsuit claims that the U.S. government violated the National Environmental Policy Act by issuing a permit to allow the transfer of animals without fully evaluating what impact the process of capture and transport would have on the emotional and physical well-being of the elephants.
Michael Harris, director of Friends of Animals' Wildlife Law Program, said in a statement that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, or FWS, "is turning a blind eye to the growing scientific consensus that elephants are highly intelligent, social and emotional beings."
"The trauma of being ripped from their families in the wild, transported halfway around the world and forced to live the remainder of their lives in captivity will have an everlasting effect on these animals," Harris said.
Tuesday's lawsuit noted that evidence has shown that elephants suffer from depression, anxiousness, mood swings and fear, and face a higher risk of disease while in captivity. It also says they can show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
FWS approved the application from the three zoos to import elephants from Swaziland on Jan. 22.
The zoos have been working collaboratively to provide homes for elephants that were slated to be removed as part of a conservation plan to make room for critically endangered rhinos in Swaziland's big game parks. Each zoo will take six elephants, according to a joint statement.
"We are deeply disappointed that a lawsuit has been filed. These types of delaying tactics compromise efforts to provide these elephants with a safe haven and a more secure future in the United States," Melissa Graham, PR and Marketing Manager for the Sedgwick County Zoo, told Courthouse News.
Graham also pointed to the severe drought in Swaziland that has necessitated such a move, pointing out that the elephants at issue, which are already in captivity in Africa, will likely die if they are not relocated.
"Severe drought conditions in the region have created a scarcity of food, and increased competition for what little is left. The drought threatens not only the elephants, but a population of critically endangered black rhinos that are managed by the parks and naturally compete with elephants for the same food sources," Graham said.
Dennis Pate, CEO of Omaha's Doorly Zoo, said in a statement that his zoo is "making a lifetime commitment to these elephants and their offspring and are providing a safe home for them."
In anticipation of the FWS decision, the zoos have been paying to import food and other supplies to Africa to care for the animals since last July.
Friends of Animals expressed skepticism over claims from officials in Swaziland that elephants are overrunning their county and the herd must be thinned.
"This is a claim that Swaziland has made in the past. Independent observers, however, assert that Swaziland mismanages the elephants, improperly confining them to small areas where they naturally overgraze and impact the land," the 30-page lawsuit states.
"The zoos have invested more than $25 million in elephant exhibits and need elephants to fill them. Likewise, Swaziland, which is a monarchy run by a king, is looking to make a profit on their sale," Friends of Animals claims, recasting the zoos' conservation effort as a business transaction.
Friends of Animals seeks a court declaration that FWS violated the National Environmental Policy Act by approving the permit. The group also wants an injunction to halt the transfer of the animals until a full evaluation is complete.
FWS and its director Daniel Ashe are named as defendants in the complaint.
Harris and Jennifer Best of the Wildlife Law Program filed the lawsuit on behalf of Friends of Animals.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.