A court order requiring the Los Angeles Zoo to exercise its elephants on soft ground and barring the use of electric shock was overturned Thursday by the California Supreme Court.
In a unanimous decision, the state's highest court said the taxpayers who obtained an injunction against the L.A. Zoo used the wrong legal vehicle to obtain results.
The highly technical ruling said a taxpayer lawsuit, which relies on rules of civil law, cannot be used to stop criminal conduct. The suit that led to the injunction against the zoo accused it of violating a criminal law against animal cruelty.
A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge issued the injunction in 2012, ordering the zoo to exercise its three Asian elephants at least two hours a day on rototilled soil to reduce the impact on their legs and pads.
The injunction also banned the use of electric shock and a barbed stick known as a "bull hook" — disciplinary tools the zoo said it wasn't using and will not use now.
David B. Casselman, a Tarzana lawyer who worked on the case for more than five years without charge, said he would return to trial court to see if there is another way to obtain a similar injunction or ask the Legislature to overturn the ruling.
"What they are saying is, the taxpayer waste statute does not allow civil cases to pursue criminal conduct," he said.
Casselman said the injunction was necessary to ensure the zoo cared for its elephants properly.
"This is heartbreaking," he said. "I thought we had done something here to move the ball forward and instead the Supreme Court has allowed the zoo to take a step into the dark ages."
John Lewis, director of the L.A. Zoo, said the judge's order would continue to be followed, even though it was no longer legally enforceable.
"We will continue to exercise them and provide the best care for our elephants," Lewis said.
The elephants are Billy, 32, and Tina and Jewel, who are in their early 50s, Lewis said. The average life span for an elephant in the wild or at a zoo is 45 years.
California passed a law last year banning the use of bull hooks on captive elephants. The measure was modeled after ordinances in Los Angeles and Oakland.
In issuing the 2012 injunction, former Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge John L. Segal said the L.A. Zoo was "not a happy place for elephants."
Segal, elevated to a court of appeal in 2015 by Gov. Jerry Brown, ordered the protective measures after a six-day trial.
"This case raises the question of whether the recreational or perhaps educational needs of one intelligent mammal species outweigh the physical and emotional, if not survival, needs of another," the judge wrote in a 56-page ruling. "Existing California law does not answer that question."
The ACLU and several animal rights groups urged the state high court to retain Segal's order in friend-of-the-court briefs. An association of counties sided with the L.A. Zoo.
4:10 p.m.: This article was updated with additional background information about the 2012 injunction.