After surviving two city-ordered delays, the protests of animal welfare advocates and an ongoing lawsuit, the Los Angeles Zoo is on the verge not only of opening its controversial $42-million elephant exhibit but also of getting what that exhibit needs: new elephants.
Elephants, that is, that will be new to the zoo.
Tina and Jewel are female Asian elephants of un certain age who between them have endured foot problems and dental surgery. They will be on indefinite loan from the San Diego Zoo, both zoos announced Friday.
Estimated to be 43 to 45 years old, they have their own fraught history. They spent years with a Texas circus trainer who was cited by the U.S. Agriculture Department for inadequate veterinary care. When the San Diego Zoo acquired them 14 months ago, they had to be nursed back to health.
They will arrive in Los Angeles, well, when they feel like it. First they have to be trained to get into their transport crates, which is no easy business.
“Until Tina and Jewel tell us they’re ready, we’ll wait,” said John Lewis, director of the L.A. Zoo.
They will become charter members of the L.A. Zoo’s Elephants of Asia program, which zoo officials have indicated in the past would include breeding. Tina and Jewel, however, are well beyond hearing the ticktock of their biological clocks (which, for first-time pachyderm moms, stops by age 30, according to Lewis).
The exhibit’s primary purpose, Lewis said, is to exhibit Asian elephants of various ages and expose visitors to the conservation needs of this endangered species.
“The important part is to be able to show these great animals,” he said.
Zoos across the country have come under fire for their treatment of the giant mammals. But management of elephants in zoos has evolved dramatically. Over recent decades, most zoos have come a long way from the days when the animals were kept on concrete in small spaces and often disciplined with sharp bull hooks.
Today, the better zoos offer elephants softer ground, more space and various enrichments: waterfalls, mud holes and other natural attractions of the sort they might find in their native habitats.
The L.A. Zoo’s new six-acre exhibit has all that and more (sandy hills, bathing pools) plus medical care a wild animal wouldn’t have.
Still, animal welfare advocates argue that almost no zoo can replicate the habitat of wild elephants, which roam for miles each day and often stay in intact family groups. Zoos, they say, don’t fail just on the space front; they transfer animals to other zoos when they see fit.
Catherine Doyle, elephant campaign director for the advocacy group In Defense of Animals, said that’s what she sees happening here.
“Actually it feels like a betrayal for the elephants,” Doyle said. “The San Diego Zoo shouldn’t have taken them if they didn’t plan to keep them. These elephants have had a very hard life, and they deserve to go to a permanent and stable situation."
Doyle, like other animal welfare advocates, believes that multi-acre sanctuaries, not zoos, are the best places for retired captive elephants. But she praised a new L.A. Zoo policy that will allow only “protected contact” — as opposed to “free contact” — between elephants and zookeepers.
With protected contact, there is always a barrier between keeper and elephant. That’s safer for the keeper but also ensures that the keeper uses only positive reinforcement — not the threat of punishment — to coax an animal to do something.
“That’s a step in the right direction,” said Doyle.
Lewis said he expected Tina and Jewel to remain in L.A. for quite a while.
There could be reasons in the future “why they should go somewhere else,” but “our intent is to bring them here and keep them here,” he said. In the last few years, as the zoo fought to continue building the new facility, it coped with a number of elephant problems.
The zoo’s beloved Asian elephant Gita died in her enclosure, nine months after surgery on a severe foot problem. Ruby, the zoo’s African elephant, was moved to a sanctuary — something animal welfare advocates had urged for years. The one remaining elephant — an Asian bull named Billy, known for bobbing his head in his small enclosure — was finally moved to larger quarters when a chunk of the new exhibit was finished early for him.
With Tina and Jewel, the zoo will have three elephants. The plan is to acquire no more than two more in the next few years, Lewis said. That number is a good fit, he said, for the zoo’s current level of staffing and funding.
Real estate agent Aaron Leider is suing the zoo as a taxpayer, alleging that the city agency wastes funds by poorly managing its elephants. His lawyer, David Casselman, unsuccessfully asked this week for a temporary injunction to bar the zoo from acquiring any new pachyderms.
“I think this is typical of the way the zoo has proceeded,” Casselman said. “They act as if the litigation is merely an annoyance rather than a consideration.”
The next hearing in the case is scheduled for December.
“We’re going to keep proceeding until the court tells us otherwise,” said Lewis.