Caught by surprise last week when the Maryland Zoo backed out of a deal to adopt its three African elephants, the Philadelphia Zoo is now searching for a home for the animals at institutions within a day's drive of here.

The Pittsburgh Zoo and the North Carolina Zoo, which had been considered and are poised to open expanded African elephant habitats, seemed likely prospects.

Andy Baker, the Philadelphia Zoo vice president leading the search, would say only that he was looking mainly at zoos in the Atlantic seaboard area with African collections and that he had made contact with a number of potential homes.

"Closer is better," he said. "Petal is 50 years old and it's been a long time since she's moved."

Her companions, Kallie, 24, and Bette, 23, are in their reproductive prime and attempts will be made to breed them wherever the three end up.

Pittsburgh is a major breeding center, with two calves born in the last eight years, and two more on the way, plus four adults.

"Jackson, our bull, is one of the most valuable breeding bulls in the country," said Pittsburgh Zoo CEO Barbara Baker (no relation to Andy Baker).

Pittsburgh's success has attracted donors whose contributions are helping the zoo fund two major projects: an expansion of its elephant exhibit scheduled to open in June, and the purchase and conversion of a hunting ranch near Berlin, Pa., in Somerset County, into an International Conservation Center slated to open to elephants in the fall.

Barbara Baker said animals would rotate between the zoo and the 724-acre preserve. The preserve will be a breeding center and could accept any number of elephants on a permanent or temporary basis.

With additional space in two places, Pittsburgh is looking for animals, but Baker would not say whether she was in discussions with Philadelphia.

"We'd certainly be willing to help these animals," she said.

The North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, which is doubling its elephant exhibit to seven acres, is also acquiring.

It has two females and a male who has not been a successful stud, said Rod Hackney, zoo spokesman. As it adds elephants, it will be looking for a bull and breeding-age females.

"Our plan is to have everything in place early in the fall," Hackney said. Whether the Philadelphia elephants were a possibility, he could not say.

"We have been in discussions with some places about new elephants," he said.

Pete Hoskins was CEO of the Philadelphia Zoo in 2005 when the board decided not to build a new savanna for the elephants, which led to the decision to close the elephant exhibit. In an interview last week, he said Pittsburgh and North Carolina were relocation options at one time, but he did not know who the front-runners were now that Maryland, citing financial problems, has dropped out.

"Things are so dynamic," he said.

Philadelphia's Baker said he was not exploring a sanctuary placement for the elephants, which local activists are urging.

Friends of the Philly Zoo Elephants gathered over the weekend at the zoo entrance to push the sanctuary option for the Africans and to say goodbye to Dulary, 42, the zoo's Asian elephant, who is scheduled to move next month to the Elephant Sanctuary in rural Tennessee. That sanctuary is not accepting Africans.

In a statement released last week, Marianne Bessey, a spokeswoman for the Friends group, said another sanctuary, the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) in California, had offered them a home.

"The Philadelphia Zoo has a wonderful opportunity to do what is best for Kallie, Bette and Petal and send them to a place where they will finally have a life free of bullhooks and chains," Bessey said.

Pat Derby, cofounder of PAWS, said there was room for the Philadelphians in the sanctuary's 75-acre African habitat, but added, "It's more than saying, 'Ship them out here.' "

"We'd have to evaluate the elephants, the zoo would have to want to send them, and our veterinarians would have to go there," she said in an interview.

PAWS has three Africans and is scheduled to get a fourth, Ruby, from the Los Angeles Zoo, next month.

Derby said the Philadelphia Zoo had not called "and it's their decision to make."

Baker said he was looking again at zoos that were in the mix the first time around and hoped to have an answer in a month or two.

"We had multiple other options we all felt could have provided good homes," he said.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums will have a say.

Mike Keele, deputy director of the Oregon Zoo, is head of the association's Elephant Species Survival Plan, which is leading the drive to consolidate the captive population and revitalize it through breeding.

Zoos around the country are building bigger elephant exhibits, but Keele would not comment on possible choices for the Philadelphians. He indicated they would be best at a place where Kallie and Bette could mate naturally with a bull.

"That's another social experience for them," he said. "They'll learn what courting's all about."

Contact staff writer Julie Stoiber at 215-854-2468 or jstoiber@phillynews.com.