Billy, the L.A. Zoo's bull elephant. (Los Angeles Times )
The Los Angeles Zoo “is not a happy place for elephants, nor is it for members of the public who go to the zoo and recognize that the elephants are neither thriving, happy, nor content,” declared L.A. Superior Court Judge John L. Segal in the decision he signed Monday ruling in favor of two local citizens and animal welfare advocates who sued the zoo, arguing it mistreats its pachyderms.
“Captivity is a terrible existence for any intelligent, self-aware species, which the undisputed evidence shows elephants are. To believe otherwise, as some high-ranking zoo employees appear to believe, is delusional. And the quality of life that Billy, Tina, and Jewel endure in their captivity is particularly poor.”
The judge was withering in his opinion that the elephant keepers and even a zoo vet were clueless when it came to understanding the behavior of elephants. He said he found it particularly disturbing that the senior elephant keeper would consider the head-bobbing of the bull elephant, Billy, a sign of a contented elephant as opposed to being an abnormal behavior, as elephant experts testified at trial.
But the judge stopped short of what the plaintiffs wanted, which was to close the zoo’s elephant exhibit and send the animals to a sanctuary. Segal said that “the court finds that although the Los Angeles Zoo is not treating its elephants well, the zoo is not abusing them.”
Instead, he issued an injunction against the zoo using bullhooks and electric shock in working with the elephants. (Zoo officials said they had voluntarily stopped doing all of that, but the judge said he wasn’t convinced they would continue that ban voluntarily.) He also issued an injunction requiring the elephants to be exercised at least two hours a day and to rototill the soil they trod to prevent foot injuries.
The judge’s ruling is a stunning rebuke of L.A. Zoo officials, who have steadfastly insisted for years that the zoo -- which recently opened a $42-million elephant exhibit -- is offering state-of-the-art management of its elephants. Now it’s time for zookeepers and officials to start working hard to improve their care of the elephants. Instead of dismissing wildlife experts who criticize them, the zoo should be consulting with them on how to retool the elephant exhibit and overhaul the daily lives of these majestic animals.
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