Activists Closely Watching Suit Over L.A. Zoo's Elephant Exhibit
June 19, 2012 | By Ashley Powers, Los Angleles Times
Billy, a 27-year-old Asian elephant, has spent much of his life at the Los Angeles Zoo. His maladies -- including cracked toes and weary joints -- are at the center of an animal activist's lawsuit against the zoo over its "Elephants in Asia' exhibit. (Mark Boster, Los Angeles…)
To the man suing the city of Los Angeles over how its zoo treats elephants, Billy endures a miserable existence.
The Asian elephant has spent much of his 27 years at the zoo in Griffith Park. He's now overweight and plagued by cracked toes and weary joints, plaintiff Aaron Leider alleged in court documents. Billy bobs his head for hours, which some experts say is a sign of emotional turmoil, and he's sexually frustrated for months at a time.
Billy's maladies — and what may have caused them — will be debated at length this week in a trial that began Monday in downtown Los Angeles. Leider blames the zoo's exhibit, "Elephants of Asia," for its occupants' ailments and is seeking to shut it down.
The long-running lawsuit has been closely watched in the animal rights community, as testimony could potentially embarrass city officials who signed off on the $42-million exhibit. Critics say the space is too small and the ground too hard for its three occupants: Billy, Tina and Jewel.
City attorneys scoffed at the accusations. The exhibit meets the standards of both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Assn. of Zoos and Aquariums, they said, and was designed to keep the elephants comfortable, down to a heated barn floor.
"The evidence will show that the elephants at the exhibit are pampered, they are protected, they well cared for and, yes, they are loved. They are loved by their handlers at the Los Angeles Zoo," Deputy City Atty. John Carvalho said.
In Los Angeles, the care of elephants has long been a political lightning rod. Some animal welfare advocates contend that elephants, who roam for up to 18 hours a day in the wild, will inevitably grow depressed in captivity.
The issue first came to Leider's attention in 1992, when an African elephant named Hannibal died as zoo officials were preparing to move him to Mexico. Leider joined protests against the confinement of elephants, and in 2007 he and actor Robert Culp filed a lawsuit against the city and its zoo director, John Lewis.
In the years it took for the suit to reach trial, Culp died and the zoo rejected an offer of land for a sprawling elephant sanctuary, said plaintiff's attorney David Casselman. In 2010, the zoo opened its new elephant habitat: more than three acres of trees and water holes.
Leider said the space not only was inadequate, but it continued a pattern of the zoo treating the elephants as "fungible chattel." In the last four or so decades, 14 of its elephants have died, he said in court papers.
City attorneys countered that Leider, a real estate agent, is anti-zoo and intends to use the court proceedings as a bully pulpit to publicize his views.
The trial is expected to last five days, with Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge John L. Segal issuing a ruling some time after.