Suit seeks to stop L.A. Zoo project

Times Staff Writer

Actor Robert Culp and real estate agent Aaron Leider filed a lawsuit Thursday as taxpayers against John Lewis, the director of the Los Angeles Zoo, and the city of Los Angeles to stop construction of a $40-million elephant exhibit and bar the zoo from keeping elephants on the grounds.

“We want them to close the existing exhibits, acquire no more elephants and spend the money more wisely,” said attorney David Casselman, who is handling the case pro bono.

“We have said we’re going to build this habitat,” said Jason Jacobs, director of public relations and marketing for the zoo, which is a city department. “We’re committed to having elephants.”


The City Council approved the construction project last year, and Jacobs said the exhibit is scheduled to open in November 2009. The zoo has only one elephant, a bull named Billy. Animal welfare activists have long argued that elephants in zoos don’t have enough space or soft ground.

Jacobs said the new exhibit would offer the animals a variety of surfaces to walk on and “lots of choices in terms of enrichment and habitat they can travel through.”

But Casselman said that the six-acre exhibit -- 3.6 acres of which will be devoted to habitat for elephants -- is insufficient. “If we had to live in a closet for the rest of our lives, it’s like expanding the closet to include one more pair of shoes,” said Casselman, who added that the lawsuit does not try to prevent the zoo from acquiring land for elephants outside Griffith Park.

The suit also alleges mistreatment of elephants going back decades, saying that it has caused both direct and indirect damage to the elephants, which are city “property.” Among the instances it alleges: a 1984 incident in which an elephant was hit with a bull hook and one in 1986 in which an elephant was electrically shocked by handlers.

“This was over 20 years ago, and we manage elephants much differently than we did 20 years ago,” Jacobs said. The zoo’s current director was not at the zoo two decades ago.