Friends of elephants get serious

Times Staff Writer

What started out as a town hall meeting on the welfare of elephants in captivity turned into a fundraiser and a pep rally of sorts.

Assemblyman Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys), who convened a panel discussion Wednesday in the auditorium of the Ronald Reagan State Building, announced that TV game show host and animal rights activist Bob Barker was offering up to $300,000 to match, dollar for dollar, donations to send the Los Angeles Zoo's sole female elephant, Ruby, to a sanctuary and maintain her there.

When the discussion was opened to comment from the audience, animal rights activist Patty Shenker said she would donate $100,000.

"I'm lucky to be in the position to do it," said Shenker, adding that she would like to see both Ruby and Billy, the zoo's male elephant, go to a sanctuary.

The need for funds at this point is hypothetical. L.A. Zoo Director John Lewis, who did not attend the meeting, has said that he is looking for a new home for Ruby and is considering both zoos and sanctuaries but would prefer a zoo.

Levine said public fund-raising would remove any financial roadblocks to a sanctuary retirement.

"It's not a right of anyone in the state of California to see an elephant," Levine told reporters before the meeting. "It's a privilege and an honor."

Next month, Levine plans to re-introduce a bill, which failed to make it out of the Appropriations Committee earlier this year, that would have mandated, among other requirements, five acres of space for three elephants in a zoo -- with increasing amounts for additional elephants. His new bill, he says, will be more flexible on space requirements, but mandate that elephants have certain kinds of enrichment to make up for lack of space.

In the last couple of years, five of North America's 184 accredited zoos have decided to forgo elephant exhibits. But Steven Feldman of the Assn. of Zoos and Aquariums said many more zoos -- including the L.A. Zoo -- have decided to upgrade and expand their elephant exhibits.

"It's not just about space," said Feldman. "It's about enrichment, it's about commitment to wild elephant conservation, it's the right number of well-trained keepers."

The panelists at the town hall Wednesday, including former L.A. Zoo curator Les Schobert, veterinarian Mel Richardson and PAWS Sanctuary co-founder and director Pat Derby, said elephants need to have acres of dirt or grass to roam on to help maintain foot and joint health.

Levine invited officials of the L.A. Zoo, a circus and an agency that loans out elephants to be on the panel, but none did so.

Levine said he already had met with Lewis and other staff.

"I know many of you don't like Mr. Lewis," Levine told the audience. "It's clear to me that he does care about the elephants. We just disagree over how to take care of the elephants."

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