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An assemblyman who never forgets elephants

March 08, 2007|Carla Hall | Times Staff Writer

State Assemblyman Lloyd Levine is not a vegetarian, is allergic to cats and doesn't own a dog. (He does, however, admit to a "family of dust bunnies" under his bed.)

This year, the only legislation that has come close to making him famous -- both "Good Morning, America" and "The Colbert Report" took notice -- is not about protecting animals. It's about banning the sale of incandescent lightbulbs. (Levine dubbed it the "How Many Legislators Does It Take to Change a Light Bulb Act.")

Yet the 37-year-old Democrat from Van Nuys has become something of an elephant point man in the California Legislature.

Last year, he introduced a bill that would have mandated a minimum of five acres of outdoor space for zoo elephants, a requirement that no zoo in the state except Oakland's had met or had plans to meet. Even the Los Angeles Zoo's sweeping $39-million planned pachyderm exhibit, now under construction, does not offer that much enclosure space. The bill never made it out of the appropriations committee.

This year, Levine has retooled his proposal. Instead of mandatory space requirements, zoos must offer enrichment activities and see that their elephants, creatures known to roam miles in the wild, walk an average of five miles a day. The bill, which Levine introduced Feb. 22, also outlaws the use of the bull hook and other instruments.

"I've said this about elephants repeatedly -- nobody has an inherent right to see an elephant in the zoo. Nobody has an inherent right to see any animal in the zoo," said Levine, who is wading into the national controversy over whether zoos are humanely keeping elephants. "It's a privilege, and with the privilege of seeing an animal in the zoo comes the responsibility of providing it care that's appropriate."

There's more animal welfare on Levine's agenda. On Feb. 23 he introduced a bill -- co-authored by Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima) and Assemblyman Pedro Nava (D-Santa Barbara) and backed by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa -- that has the potential to affect every dog and cat owner in California. In an effort to stem the euthanasia of hundreds of thousands of unwanted shelter animals -- many the offspring of unaltered pets -- the measure would make neutering and spaying of pets in the state mandatory. (Certain owners can apply for exemptions.)

Why did the chair of the Assembly Committee on Utilities and Commerce become such an animal advocate?

"My parents just taught me an appreciation for animals," Levine said.

But the real religion at home in the San Fernando Valley was politics, not animal rights. The son of political consultant Larry Levine, the assemblyman saw the inside of his first campaign headquarters at age 4.

And that may be why Levine, whether he's talking elephants or house pets -- or the energy-wasting of incandescent lightbulbs -- seems to know where to draw the line.

"I'm not an extreme animal legislator," said Levine, now in his third term in the Assembly and planning a run for the Senate.

In general, animal bills can set up legislators for a tough ride. "You get labeled, you get seen as a little different," said Democratic state Sen. Alan Lowenthal of Long Beach, who last year had success with a bill that outlawed prolonged tethering of dogs -- but not before legislators greeted him with barks. Lowenthal said Levine seems to have escaped the labeling. "Lloyd has a broad range of issues that he's interested in."

Levine has written several energy bills this year and co-authored a high-profile measure on assisted suicide.

"I don't go out on wild goose chases -- pardon the bad pun there," said Levine, who prides himself on his research. "Even if you don't 100% agree with me, you can't say that I don't have any facts to support me."

But he doesn't convince everyone.

"Obviously we want to make sure animals are treated fairly," said Assemblyman Rick Keene (R-Chico). "But I don't see a crying need to get involved in how zoos manage their animals. I haven't heard anyone say the most pressing problem in the state is that we don't walk elephants five miles a day."

Keene works with Levine on the Utilities and Commerce Committee. "I like to tease him," he said, adding that they are friends -- if not legislative soul mates. "I don't think the state of California should tell people to spay and neuter their animals when they know they should."

Levine says he's game for the political teasing: "If you're willing to joke about yourself, you actually increase your credibility."

Zoo visit

As he strolled through the Los Angeles Zoo recently, Levine said he still believes in the educational significance of zoos but not in their ability to keep elephants. In particular, he thinks the L.A. Zoo should send both its female African elephant, Ruby -- currently kept off-exhibit alone -- and its only on-display pachyderm, Billy, an Asian bull, to a sanctuary.

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