L.A. Zoo Under Pressure to Retire Its Elephants
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Across the country many big city zoos have been sharply criticized for their elephant exhibits. Animal rights activists have called many of those exhibits cruel because the elephants don't have room to roam. Los Angeles is the latest battleground in this fight. As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, the city is trying to decide whether to spend 50 million dollars on a brand new state of the art elephant habitat.
CARRIE KAHN, reporting:
More than a million visitors come through the Los Angeles zoo each year. Billy the elephant is a main attraction and one of the reasons three year old James Carlund's(ph) grandmother brings him here.
Mr. JAMES CARLUND (Zoo visitor): He has a trunk.
KAHN: He has a big trunk.
Mr. CARLUND: Yeah.
KAHN: But Billy's habitat hasn't exactly been star quality. Zoo director John Lewis says the city has been planning to upgrade the exhibit for years.
Mr. JOHN LEWIS (Director, Los Angeles Zoo): What we're trying to do is to get him into a new facility where we can potentially have a breeding herd of other Asian animals and make him the father of some young elephants.
KAHN: Last year, just as the city council was set to approve a 25 million dollar upgrade, newly elected mayor Antonio Villaraigosa halted the plans and ordered a study the proposed expansion. The study's come back and the recommendation is for an even bigger elephant exhibit at nearly double the cost. The political wrangling that's followed has left Billy in limbo. He's restricted to a dirt-covered pen, and for several hours a day can be seen bobbing his head and swaying, behavior that animal activists say is brought on by his unnatural solitary life.
Mr. LEWIS: Billy does bob.
KAHN: Zoo director Lewis says Billy rocks his head while waiting for food.
Mr. LEWIS: He actually bobs increasingly. Once he's eating and going through his exercise and what have you, he doesn't do that behavior. So, when you say is it a natural behavior? No, but it's not pathological.
KAHN: But for animal activist Katherine Doyle, Billy's behavior is just one of several problems plaguing the three elephants at the L.A. Zoo. The two others, Gita and Ruby, are out of public view. Gita has chronic foot problems and Doyle regularly requests the elephant's medical records. She says Gita will die soon, just like the 46 elephants that died in accredited U.S. zoos in the past five years.
Ms. KATHERINE DOYLE (Animal right activist): And unfortunately in zoos right now they're dying at an average of 34-years of age. They're dying at about half their natural life span. And the main reasons are some problems with arthritis, which we know those don't occur in the wild.
KAHN: Faced with the same criticism, the San Francisco Zoo recently closed its elephant exhibit. And the Bronx Zoo announced it won't be getting anymore new elephants. Animal activists like TV game show host Bob Barker are pressuring Los Angeles to follow suit and send Gita and the other elephants to a wildlife sanctuary.
Mr. BOB BARKER (Game show host and animal activist): She has literally given her life for the amusement of man, and we do not believe that the taxpayers of this great city want to share the Los Angeles Zoo's immorality.
Mr. TOM LABONGE (Los Angeles City Councilman): Bob's very committed, he's a great citizen of Los Angeles, but we have a difference of opinion on this.
KAHN: Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge, whose district includes the zoo, says the elephants are worth whatever it will cost to build the new exhibit.
Mr. LEWIS: There's a real dividing line between those who believe in zoos and these cultural facilities, these educational facilities, and those who believe in the absolute wild. I say it's really important to have a full zoo for a city like Los Angeles. For a city that serves Southern California.
KAHN: In fact, the American Zoo and Aquarium Association says 40 zoos nationwide are currently remodeling or expanding their elephant exhibits. Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa says he's willing to reconsider his campaign pledge to move L.A.'s elephants to a sanctuary, but he's waiting for the final zoo plan which is still weeks away.
(Soundbite of elephant throwing water)
KAHN: That means Gita, who still has a black plastic boot around her healing foot wound will remain in a small pen out of public view. On a recent warm day she throws a trunk full of water and mud over her shoulder, right in zoo director Lewis's path.
She's not suffering?
Mr. LEWIS: No, she's not suffering. If anything she's spoiled rotten.
KAHN: Animal activists beg to differ and they vow to keep up their fight to move Gita and the other elephants out of L.A. Zoo to a place where they're free to roam. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Los Angeles.
(Soundbite of elephant throwing water)
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