Billy, an Asian elephant, has spent most of his 37 years at the Los Angeles Zoo mesmerizing visitors with his long, ivory tusks and worrying animal welfare advocates with his frequent head movements. Although zoo officials have argued it’s nothing more than a harmless habit — sometimes done when he expects keepers to come feed or exercise him — various animal experts, including veterinarians say it’s a sign of stress and trauma.
Whether a zoo can successfully care for elephants, the largest land mammal, and able to walk miles a day for food and shelter, has been debated for years. Some zoos have retired their elephants, leaving them to live out the rest of their lives in a sanctuary with acres of land. Others, including the Los Angeles Zoo, kept their pachyderms but improved their living conditions. The LA Zoo has spent $42 million to build the largest Elephants of Asia exhibit which provides its four Asian elephants with 3.6 acres of space, divided into four meters. The former zoo director said the LA Zoo’s elephant exhibit was in the national top 10 in terms of size.
Over the years, city council members, animal experts and advocates have argued that the LA Zoo is no place for elephants and that Billy, apparently the most stressed out of the zoo’s herd, should be retired to a sanctuary. A private citizen fought a decade-long legal battle to get the zoo to stop keeping elephants. Although the judge handling the case criticized the zoo as “an unsavory place for elephants” and ordered changes in its care, that decision was ultimately overturned by the California Supreme Court. Zoo officials said they were still following the judge’s orders regarding care.
On Tuesday, a city council committee voted to move Billy to a sanctuary. The full city council should now do the same and ask the zoo to start the process by studying how and where.
This is not to accuse the zoo of mistreatment or neglect, but to acknowledge the zoo’s inherent shortcomings in providing everything this elephant needs; a bigger enclosure didn’t dampen Billy’s leading behavior.
For years, Billy was kept away from the zoo’s three female Asian elephants, so he had no elephants to socialize with. (Bulls do not stay with herds of females after they mature, but studies in the wild have shown that they are more social than once thought.) In recent years, zoo staff have left to mingle with the females, and on these On several occasions they saw a significant reduction in his head movements, according to Denise Verret, director of the LA zoo for 3 and a half years and assistant director for nearly two decades previously. These sightings of Billy are encouraging but not reason enough to keep him at the zoo.
Retirement would also mean that Billy will no longer be subjected to invasive attempts to retrieve his sperm for the artificial insemination of female elephants at other zoos. (The females at the Los Angeles Zoo — Shaunzi, 51; Tina, 56; and Jewel, 60 — have passed their breeding years.) Those attempts failed and, according to zoo officials, were stopped there. Eight years.
Verret says she is ready to move Billy to a new place where he can thrive, although she has made it clear that she would prefer an ASSN-accredited zoo. of Zoos and Aquariums, the professional organization that represents and accredits zoos in North America. Some sanctuaries, including the Tennessee Elephant Sanctuary, are accredited, although most are not open to the public. But Verret says, “We never stop considering all the opportunities that exist to improve Billy’s well-being, including other places where his well-being could be improved.
Good. Verret and his staff should start doing this by looking at shrines. Finding the right one will be a process of several months. Preparing him for a move could also take months. There are only a handful in the United States that can take care of elephants. The space the sanctuary has, the number of other Asian elephants and the amount of care that will be provided are all questions that will need to be resolved.
Can the sanctuary provide softer, better ground for Billy’s feet than the zoo exhibit? Even the floor of the LA Zoo exhibit, which is rototilled regularly to make it softer, is getting hard in spots after heavy elephants have trampled on it repeatedly. Captive elephants are at risk of debilitating foot and joint problems, and Billy has had cracked fingernails, according to Philip Ensley, a former veterinarian for three decades at the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Safari Park, who has wrote reports and testified at trial. on the health of elephants in various zoos.
Billy has served over three decades at the Los Angeles Zoo. He has earned his retirement in a place where he has more room to move around and a less stressful life.
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