Originally published in City Watch LA, June 5, 2017
A small, influential group of celebrities and animal activists have reinvigorated their failed 2009 campaign to move Billy the elephant out of the LA Zoo. On April 19, Councilmember Paul Koretz introduced a motion to “immediately cancel any current or future elephant breeding activities” and to move Billy to a “sanctuary environment.”
Billy is 32-year old Malaysian bull who was rescued by the LA Zoo when he was four years old. One of the Zoo’s three elephants, Billy is the only male. Genetically, he is the second most valuable male of his species in the world. Tina and Jewel are the two females, at the Zoo since 2010.
According to World Elephant Day:
Asian elephants, whose habitat ranges over 13 countries across Asia, are endangered with less than 40,000 remaining worldwide – less than a tenth of the African elephant population. Wild Asian elephants suffer severe habitat loss in some of the most densely human-populated regions on the planet. Their traditional territories and migration routes have been fragmented by development, highways and industrial mono-crops such as palm oil and rubber tree plantations, which has destroyed millions of hectares of forest ecosystems.
With no access to their natural habitat, elephants are forced into deadly confrontations with humans where neither species wins. Asian elephants are also poached for their ivory tusks, meat and body parts, while baby elephants are captured from the wild and sold into the tourism industry. Worldwide, Asian elephants are trained, traded and used for entertainment in tourist parks and circuses, and also for illegal logging activities. These captive elephants are often mistreated, abused and confined to sub-standard facilities without adequate veterinarian care.
In 1982 there were 22 California condors left on the planet, Jan Hamber recalled for the Santa Ynez Valley News on April 18, 2017, Saving the California condor:
A debate raged as to whether to capture one of the remaining birds in the wild for a captive breeding program. The Los Angeles Zoo had the only captive-bred male condor. If a female was captured, they could start subcaptive breeding. There were people who were vehemently opposed to any human handling of these birds.
“A huge contingent was prepared to let the condor go extinct, to ‘die with dignity’ is what they called it. There is nothing dignified about being shot by a hunter or being ill and not cared for and falling off a tree rotting in the chaparral,” she said, still seething over the debate. “I do not see that as dignified.”
Hamber recounted the debate as she prepared to receive an award for her work in rescuing the species from the edge of extinction. There are now approximately 450 condors, due to the LA Zoo’s successful breeding program and because of the determination of advocates for the species unwilling to let the majestic bird “die with dignity.”
In 2009, a small, influential group of celebrities and animal activists organized to stop Los Angeles from completing the building of the “Pachyderm Forest,” a $42 million project approved by the voters in a 1998 bond measure, insisting on sending Billy, the only elephant at the Zoo at the time, to an elephant sanctuary. At the determinative City Council hearing on January 28, 2009, Cher likened keeping Billy at the Zoo to slavery. Bob Barker offered $1.5 million on the spot to finance the move rather than finishing the City’s “rinky-dink” elephant exhibit. Lily Tomlin got so emotional she needed to be shushed by the Sergeant-at-Arms more than once.
Now that the exhibit is complete and open to 1.6 million to enjoy each year, including an estimated 116,000 school children, the same, well-organized, well-meaning group of animal advocates wants to send Billy away from the only home he’s ever known.
At the 2009 council hearing, the one voice who helped sway the discussion was Vicky Guarnett’s as she is one of the professional zookeepers who took direct care of Billy at that time. She told the politicians that Billy was in the very best place he could be and that he was healthy and happy and well cared for. At the time, she had been with him for 14 years. She’s still there. So is Scott Haist and Don Aguirre and Stuart Millar and Kevin Copley. Back in 2009 this group of animal professionals had 71 years of experience caring for Billy.
Elephants develop deep attachments. “Imagine what it’d be like to rip a child out of your family,” Vicky challenged a council staffperson during a recent private tour.
The extreme animal activists who wanted the California condor to die were wrong. LA’s famous animal rights advocates were wrong in 2009 when they mobilized to “Free Billy.” And they’re particularly wrong now, a perfect hattrick of wrong.
If you know me at all, you know that I’m a major animal person. So much so that you’d expect me to agree that Billy “has long since earned an opportunity to live free,” as the motion states. When this came up as a union issue in 2009, that’s exactly what I thought, initially. Then I met with the workers.
Watch this short video from Billy’s handlers, from the people who know best. Go see the new exhibit (you haven’t actually seen it, have you?)! If you’d like to meet Billy and the men and women who care for him directly – and I haven’t already contacted you – get in touch. The keepers want you to have the latest, best information.
If the workers at the Zoo believed that Billy would be better off somewhere else, they’d be the strongest advocates to move him.
Check out the Zoo’s FAQ about Billy and the elephants at the Los Angeles Zoo. It answers many of the questions and concerns that have been raised about Billy’s care and treatment. For instance:
Why does Billy bob his head?
When Billy arrived at the LA Zoo as a four-year-old, he exhibited the repetitive behavior of head bobbing. Research has shown that the head bobbing is most often anticipatory in nature. Similar to when people tap their toes or fidget, Billy will bob his head when he expects food or is waiting for a specific activity. To minimize the behavior, the animal care staff breaks up Billy’s routine on a daily basis, with no two days being exactly the same. And it works.
Even though we’ve been able to reduce Billy’s head bobbing, once this kind of behavior is set in early life, it’s impossible to eliminate completely. The good news is that, through research and extensive exams, we’re able to ensure that the behavior is not detrimental to his physical or psychological health.
Those who believe there should be no zoos, no animals ever caged or kept, who insist with all available zealotry that not one more animal ever be “born in captivity,” will never find satisfactory answers.
Billy is not a wild elephant. He’s not going back to roam the grasslands of Africa. First, he’s an Asian elephant. The place from which he was saved is now an urban shopping mall. Koretz’ motion fails to identify a specific sanctuary, although at the press conference he had in front of the Zoo on April 18, he mentioned the possibility of purchasing land in Oregon. There are only a handful of legitimate elephant sanctuaries and the work of those is awesome and inspiring, for elephants who have nowhere else to go. Ruby went to the PAWS facility for hospice care.
Billy’s not ready for that. He’s young and vibrant, and, as Vicky tells him every day, “a very, very good boy.”
The people of Los Angeles contributed millions to custom build him and his companions a state-of-the-art home where the elephants come and go as they please, are never closed in the (heated, padded) barn at night, and receive the finest care available, from a herd of caring professionals that he’s known for 32 years. He is in paradise now, his own elephant sanctuary.
Now he should honor the proud heritage of the California condor and the Los Angeles Zoo and assume his role as an ambassador of his species and its perpetuation. He should breed.
Below is the Open Letter to the City Council and the public that the Zoo workers signed and circulated in 2009. Please read it carefully, noting, again, that it’s from the last time this fight came up – before the elephant exhibit was completed. It made sense then; it makes even more sense now.
Click here to tell the committee that you trust the workers at the Zoo and want to keep Billy here in Los Angeles at the LA Zoo, where he belongs.
We know Billy and we know elephants.
From 71 years’ experience with elephants including Billy we know that Billy’s best chance at a happy, natural life is a completed Pachyderm Forest at the Los Angeles Zoo. Here he can father calves with a herd of cows and make his own family.
We know Billy. His favorite food is banana plants. We feed him bales of hay, bushels of produce and tree trimmings daily. We hide bananas and oranges in his yard for exercise and enrichment. We walk him miles, scrub his tusks, trim his nails and talk to him. Billy loves the water. He’d be splashing in his waterfall right now if Pachyderm Forest had been finished on schedule. It’s Billy who pays for our delays.
Sending Billy to a sanctuary to live with his former zoo-mate, Ruby, sounds ideal unless you know Billy. Research shows elephants form lasting relationships with elephants and people. When Ruby and Billy lived together, she bit part of his ear off. That’s not a relationship to foster. While sanctuaries have a role to play, they’re no paradise for young bulls, who must be kept separate from the herd, castrated, or both.
Our lives might be easier without Billy. Elephant Keeper is one of the world’s most dangerous jobs. We shovel hundreds of pounds of dung per day. And our jobs are not at stake. There are lots of animals at the Zoo. We’d send Billy away right now if we believed it was best for Billy. It’s not.
We know elephants. For the 30,000 Asian elephants left on Earth, “the wild” is a vanished Eden. Outside of zoos young bulls live brutal, solitary lives battling to lead a breeding herd. In Asia they live in working camps or refuges under constant danger of poaching for ivory and the human hunger for land. Approximately 12,000 Asian elephants a year die in the wild. At that rate they could soon be gone. State-of-the-art zoos can save this species like we did the California condor.
We know the LA Zoo. We’ve become a world leader in conservation, education and animal care. Many of us have advanced degrees, and we’ve traveled the world to see native habitats, wildlife refuges, and other zoos. We deserve the trust and support of City officials.
Hundreds of thousands of LA children marvel at Billy each year. He is the only elephant many of them will ever see. We know that many walk away from our zoo with a new love for nature and desire to protect the natural world. They are the hope for Billy and other Asian elephants.
We call on the City Council to finish Pachyderm Forest now for Billy, LA’s children, the world and future generations.
The Elephant Keepers and colleagues at the LA Zoo, January 2009
Here’s a short slide show of Billy photos I took on June 1. The keepers have taught him to pick up his feet for easy inspection. See Billy’s feet — and Billy himself!