Elephant exhibit raises a ruckus

Hall is a Times staff writer.

For years, controversy has swirled around the elephants at the Los Angeles Zoo. Every elephant death was scrutinized; every public hearing about the animals was filled with protesters.

It’s no coincidence that the largest land mammal has prompted the largest and longest-running public relations problem for the zoo. Critics contend that the zoo has never had sufficient space to keep the lumbering behemoths.

And there’s still not enough space, they argue, in the $42-million “Pachyderm Forest” now under construction. Several weeks ago, zoo officials eagerly showed off the portion that was completed and spoke of how the 3.6 acres would include a waterfall, water holes, mud wallows and varying surfaces for elephants’ problem-prone feet to trod.


The project has already been halted once, when Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa took office and commissioned a study to look into whether it should continue. The report recommended that it move forward, and the City Council approved it in 2006.

Now, Councilman Tony Cardenas has asked that the project be scrapped. Cardenas said that after talking to experts and reviewing veterinary medical records that came to light during a recent, unsuccessful citizen lawsuit to stop elephant-keeping at the zoo, he believes the council made the wrong decision. (He voted for it too.)

On Cardenas’ side are a respected elephant wildlife expert and animal welfare advocates. They say the new exhibit is too expensive, too small and not stimulating for its inhabitants. Cardenas believes that the city should instead open an elephant sanctuary of at least 60 acres somewhere in L.A.

Today, the City Council’s budget and finance committee is scheduled to meet and discuss whether the zoo project, funded by a bond measure, city money and private donations, should be shut down.

On the other side are the zoo officials and keepers -- the men and women who have spent years bonding with their elephant charges, staying overnight when they were recovering from illnesses, grieving over elephant deaths and tamping down frustration when politicians and activists have told them how to manage elephants.

“We have zoo biologists, zoo scientists, zoo veterinarians,” L.A. Zoo Director John Lewis told officials during a recent City Council debate on elephants that lasted half a day. “We promised this council in 2006 to give you the best exhibit we can, and that’s what we have provided.”


Persuading the council that an elephant exhibit is still worth funding may be the fiercest battle L.A. Zoo staffers have ever waged.

There is only one thing that all agree on: Everyone cares deeply about the elephants.

Five years ago, there were four elephants in the zoo. Tara, a female African, died in December 2004 at the age of 39. Then Gita, the gentle Asian that zookeepers took on strolls around the zoo in the mornings before opening to the public, collapsed in her outdoor yard and died at the age of 48 in 2006. Last year, the zoo retired its last female elephant, Ruby, a 47-year-old African, to the Performing Animal Welfare Society sanctuary in San Andreas. Elephants in captivity often live into their 40s.

Now, the only elephant who remains is Billy, a 23-year-old Asian bull. If the exhibit is completed, the zoo plans to bring in Asian elephants and start a breeding program that would include Billy. “Asian elephants are in a lot of trouble,” Lewis said. “There are only about 30,000 of them left in Asia in the wild.”

The exhibit would provide information on how to contribute to conservation programs.

But Cardenas has put the L.A. Zoo’s management of their elephants under a spotlight.

The councilman points to 14 elephant deaths at the zoo since 1968. Seven did not live to age 20. Tara and Gita suffered from arthritis, and Gita in particular was hobbled by joint diseases and plagued by abscesses.

Gary Kuehn, a veterinarian who worked at the zoo from 1974 to 1997, has criticized some of the zoo’s handling of Gita’s problems, but he still gives the zoo high marks for its aggressive treatment of a serious foot bone problem in the months before her death.

Critics say the medical records are less an indictment against the zoo’s veterinary care and more an indication of the conditions under which zoos keep elephants.

Lewis, director of the zoo since 2003, says the zoo’s medical records show that 12 elephants, not 14, have died at the zoo since 1968. Whatever the number, he says, elephant-keeping has evolved. Pachyderms once kept on concrete all night in their barns now have access to dirt yards that are easier on their feet. “Since the zoo staff changed management procedures in 1992, there have only been four elephant deaths,” Lewis said.

As for Tara and Gita, he said, “Despite how we took care of them, we’re paying the price for how they were treated in their earlier lives -- no exercise, being kept on concrete.”

But the key issue for Cardenas remains the space. Critics contend that 3.6 acres is not nearly enough for the half dozen or more elephants that may live there. Zoo staffers say there will be enrichment programs and physical features to enjoy: a deep pool for swimming, fallen trees, and rocks to push or walk around.

Principal elephant keeper Jeff Briscoe, who has traveled 15 to 20 times to Asia to attend conferences or search out pachyderms, said, “We’ll have everything to mimic what you would find in the wild.”

The exhibit won’t even come close, according to Joyce Poole, an animal behaviorist who has spent decades studying elephants, mostly in Africa.

“Elephants in the wild -- their lives revolve around other individuals,” Poole said. “In order to create that, you need big space -- you need to have the elephants have a chance to search for their own food . . . to investigate what other animals are doing.”

Her dream zoo space is really more sanctuary-meets-savanna -- “like 35 square miles and 35 elephants.” She knows that’s impossible, but the exhibit is a poor substitute, she said.

Poole was also skeptical that any zoo breeding program could be successful. Zoo elephants, she said, “don’t seem to breed properly. . . . There are high rates of stillbirths; the mothers don’t know how to care for their babies.”

Nothing has become more of a lightning rod for animal welfare advocates than Billy’s much-noticed habit of repetitive head-bobbing, which they say is neurotic -- or “zoocotic.”

Lewis said Billy has been head-bobbing since he arrived at the zoo as a young animal. “We have a research biologist on staff that studies all the animals and has been watching Billy since he got here,” Lewis said. “What it has become now is an anticipation behavior. So when it’s time for the keepers to come over and feed him or work with him, he’ll start with this bobbing behavior. Is it a normal elephant behavior? No. Is it pathological? No. It’s a Billy behavior.” Keepers have worked with him to reduce the head-bobbing.

“It’s a comforting thing,” zookeeper Don Aguirre said. “It’s like little babies sucking on their thumbs.”

Said Poole in response: “Exactly. The reason they’re doing that is because they’re frustrated and bored and have a life that has no meaning. They don’t do this in the wild.”

And what of the venerated tradition of going off to the zoo to see an exotic animal? Cardenas and animal activists say no one has a right to see an elephant in the city. “Do we have a right to see whales in our city?” asked Poole, who lives in Norway.

“We’re not going to compromise on the welfare of the elephants or any other animal just so you or I can see them up close,” Lewis said. But he added, “Unless you’re standing next to one, unless you can smell one, unless you can see him throw things, you don’t have that full animal experience, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”