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Activists closely watching suit over L.A. Zoo's elephant exhibit

Critics say the space in the zoo's 'Elephants of Asia' exhibit is too small and the ground too hard for its three occupants. City attorneys scoff at the accusations.

June 19, 2012|By Ashley Powers, Los Angeles Times
  • Billy, a 27-year-old Asian elephant, has spent much of his life at the Los Angeles Zoo. His maladies -- including cracked toes and weary joints -- are at the center of an animal activist's lawsuit against the zoo over its "Elephants in Asia' exhibit.
Billy, a 27-year-old Asian elephant, has spent much of his life at the Los… (Mark Boster, Los Angeles…)

To the man suing the city of Los Angeles over how its zoo treats elephants, Billy endures a miserable existence.

The Asian elephant has spent much of his 27 years at the zoo in Griffith Park. He's now overweight and plagued by cracked toes and weary joints, plaintiff Aaron Leider alleged in court documents. Billy bobs his head for hours, which some experts say is a sign of emotional turmoil, and he's sexually frustrated for months at a time.

Billy's maladies — and what may have caused them — will be debated at length this week in a trial that began Monday in downtown Los Angeles. Leider blames the zoo's exhibit, "Elephants of Asia," for its occupants' ailments and is seeking to shut it down.

The long-running lawsuit has been closely watched in the animal rights community, as testimony could potentially embarrass city officials who signed off on the $42-million exhibit. Critics say the space is too small and the ground too hard for its three occupants: Billy, Tina and Jewel.

City attorneys scoffed at the accusations. The exhibit meets the standards of both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Assn. of Zoos and Aquariums, they said, and was designed to keep the elephants comfortable, down to a heated barn floor.

"The evidence will show that the elephants at the exhibit are pampered, they are protected, they well cared for and, yes, they are loved. They are loved by their handlers at the Los Angeles Zoo," Deputy City Atty. John Carvalho said.

In Los Angeles, the care of elephants has long been a political lightning rod. Some animal welfare advocates contend that elephants, who roam for up to 18 hours a day in the wild, will inevitably grow depressed in captivity.

The issue first came to Leider's attention in 1992, when an African elephant named Hannibal died as zoo officials were preparing to move him to Mexico. Leider joined protests against the confinement of elephants, and in 2007 he and actor Robert Culp filed a lawsuit against the city and its zoo director, John Lewis.

In the years it took for the suit to reach trial, Culp died and the zoo rejected an offer of land for a sprawling elephant sanctuary, said plaintiff's attorney David Casselman. In 2010, the zoo opened its new elephant habitat: more than three acres of trees and water holes.

Leider said the space not only was inadequate, but it continued a pattern of the zoo treating the elephants as "fungible chattel." In the last four or so decades, 14 of its elephants have died, he said in court papers.

City attorneys countered that Leider, a real estate agent, is anti-zoo and intends to use the court proceedings as a bully pulpit to publicize his views.

The trial is expected to last five days, with Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge John L. Segal issuing a ruling some time after.

If the first day is any indication, testimony will suggest an introductory course in animal behavior. For example, Carvalho pressed a plaintiff's expert as to whether Billy's head-bobbing truly signaled emotional distress. (The expert said yes.)

There was also extensive debate as to whether the elephant exhibit is large enough and varied enough to keep the animals engaged, and whether its sandy soil is soft enough to cushion the elephants' joints and feet.

Casselman said the exhibit failed on both counts. He compared housing elephants in such a space to stuffing a "blue whale in the equivalent of a goldfish bowl," and showed multiple photos of Billy's cracked nails.

He also alleged that the animals were poorly cared for, with Tina and Jewel, on loan from the San Diego Zoo, suffering from too little exercise. The former circus elephants are at least a decade older than Billy and had endured foot problems and dental surgery before arriving in L.A.

The defense suggested that the animals' ailments were the natural results of aging. Carvalho also said there was no indication that transferring the elephants to a sanctuary, as some activists have suggested, would actually improve their living conditions.

And he offered a far different picture of how the elephants are treated: with carrot-tossing games and daily "elephant pedicures." The elephants are never physical punished, he said. The zoo also keeps an animal psychiatrist on hand.

"If only people were treated so well," Carvalho said.

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