L.A. Zoo should free Billy the elephant

Elephant (animal)DeathCrime, Law and JusticeNatural ResourcesNaturePets

Billy, the lone elephant at the Los Angeles Zoo, has an anniversary this week. On Wednesday, he will have spent 20 years in his half-acre enclosure. It's up to the City Council to see that this is his last.

I have spent 50 years of my life working with elephants and have hand-reared more than 90 from infancy, so I feel qualified to offer some advice. All the orphaned elephants I worked with, when full grown, were successfully returned to where they rightly belong: among wild herds in a protected area large enough to offer an elephant a proper quality of life.

I would like to make a plea for Billy that this month, when the council votes on whether to permanently end construction on the zoo's $42-million "Pachyderm Forest" enclosure, it finally sends him to a place where he will enjoy the companionship of others in the appropriate amount of space for his needs.

It has been scientifically established that elephants are "human" in terms of emotion, a finding I wholeheartedly endorse. Gregarious creatures, they have a strong sense of family and of death; they form friendships that span a lifetime. Like humans, they need the companionship and comfort of friends. Billy has been alone since May 2007, when his companion, Ruby, the zoo's last African elephant, was relocated to the Performing Animal Welfare Society's 75-acre sanctuary in San Andreas, Calif. Billy should be released to join her there.

Consider this: The worst punishment we inflict on human wrongdoers is solitary confinement and life imprisonment. Is it right to inflict this punishment on an innocent animal that mirrors humans in terms of emotion, longevity and age progression -- and moreover has a memory that far surpasses our own?

Most good zoos in Europe have long understood that it is cruel to keep elephants in confinement and that there is nothing educational about ogling a miserable captive. The United States should surely follow suit.

No artificial situation, however attractive it may appear to us human onlookers, can possibly afford a captive elephant the space it needs. Covering 100 miles in a day is just a good stroll for an elephant. (Our 10-year-old orphan did it in a day, then turned around and walked 120 miles the next.) In Africa, where I live, elephants cross international borders, and before humans were on the planet, they undoubtedly walked from the Cape to Cairo.

Elephants are like us. They suffer from trauma and stress and, because of this, die younger in captivity. Perhaps the Los Angeles Zoo will extend compassion by releasing its elephant and affording him a little happiness as a New Year's gift. I do hope so.

Daphne Sheldrick, chairperson of David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya, is the recipient of many awards for her wildlife conservation work.

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