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Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Elephant in the Room in L.A. City Hall

This article was originally published on on Thursday, January 29, 2009:

There was a very large elephant in the L.A. City Council chamber on Jan. 28th, but unlike the proverbial pachyderm, everyone was talking about him. His name is Billy, and he's a 23-year old Asian elephant who has lived many years in a 0.6-acre, concrete enclosure at the L.A. Zoo. For 2 years, he has been alone; since the Zoo (under public pressure) sent their female elephant Ruby to a sanctuary when her mental and physical health was declining. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has said "elephants should be in sanctuaries and not in zoos", requested a review of the exhibit. The subsequent Dec. 2005 report advised expanding the yard space to 3.0 acres and getting softer substrate. On April 19, 2006 the Council approved a massive building project, meant for several elephants, called "the Pachyderm Forest." But in Dec. 2008, they halted construction to consider Councilmember Tony Cardenas' new motion to close the exhibit and send Billy to roam a spacious elephant sanctuary instead (i.e. P.A.W.S., in San Andreas, where Ruby is.) Cardenas made the motion in Nov. because he felt that when the Council approved the project, they did not have all the information. "This city can't afford to build a $40 million elephant mortuary," he said in Nov.

On Weds., L.A. City Hall's council chamber was so packed it was standing-room only (with spillover encouraged to go to another room, and watch on closed-circuit TV). Animal lovers came out en masse both for and against the proposal, both sides seemingly convinced that the other side doesn't care about animals. Passions were intense, and many of the over-40 public comments made (20 on each side) were full of vitriol against their opponents. A further 60-plus requests to speak, (about 30 pro and 30 con) had to go unfulfilled. Council President Eric Garcetti warned those assembled three times not to boo during speakers' remarks (it was the L.A. Zoo crowd booing). There was cheering, clapping, groaning, jeering, and some speaking out of turn. You could even say "it was a zoo". But meanwhile, back at the actual zoo, solitary Billy probably spent much of the time bobbing his head up and down, in the unnatural repetitive motion called "stereotypy", which is a sign of schizophrenia in humans and something close to it in zoo animals. The L.A. Zoo has claimed it isn't a sign of mental illness at all, but apparently they didn't look up 'stereotypy' in that kooky radical troublemaking book: Webster's Dictionary.

See my Jan. 24th video of Billy's head-bobbing:

Or another user's video of it, with voice-over explanation:

Cardenas' motion failed 11 to 4; the expansion of the elephant exhibit will continue and Billy has to wait for it. One way of looking at this is that the "Free Billy" movementpicked up 2 votes from the original 13 to 2 vote approving the "Pachyderm Forest." But they also lost progressive Councilmember Bill Rosendahl's expected vote. He has explicitly stated before he's "not for elephants in the zoo," but Rosendahl voted to keep building because the report from City Administrative Officer Ray Ciranna convinced him that it would cost more to discontinue the project now than to finish it.  (Similarly, an L.A. Times editorial last weekend recommended continuing even though it had opposed the project in 2006 for fear it might not be large enough. The Zoo touts the new Times op-ed even though it's the kind of lukewarm endorsement we heard at the beginning of the Iraq War: well, it's a terrible idea, but we're in it now, so we can't pull out.)

In any case, the Council vote is not very surprising in the face of busloads of personnel and supporters co-opted by the Zoo; 27,000 signatures the Zoo gathered (they have a little advantage there, since their rivals don't have an established, 113-acre entertainment attraction of their own in which to gather signatures); and a Fairbank & associates opinion survey reporting that Los Angelenos, 3 to 1, favor the completion of the exhibit. Councilmembers faced with all that are, in the end, politicians, and almost half of them are up for re-election on March 3rd.

But this Fairbank poll is interesting. It was likely commissioned by the L.A. Zoo, which issued a Jan. 26th press release about the results. If you ask me, it looks like a push poll, since the questions match many L.A. Zoo talking points, asking: whether respondents "agreed that closing the habitat and shipping Billy to a distant location will deprive schoolchildren and their families of the opportunity to learn about the threat of extinction facing Asian elephants"; whether they favored the Zoo "teaching wildlife conservation, breeding additional Asian elephants and helping prevent the extinction of the species" by building a new habitat; and whether they minded "hundreds of job losses that would result from shutting down the project in the middle of a deep economic downturn." I'm not sure if that was exact poll wording, but that's how the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association (GLAZA) relayed it. It's amazing, actually, that in each of those cases 30% did resist the way the Zoo wanted them to answer. Apparently, the survey also made a point of reminding respondents that voters had passed a Zoo Bond Measure to improve animal exhibits. (Which many "Free Billy" types seem to think is a fabulous idea, actually; several of those commenting at the meeting remarked there are other inadequate exhibits at the zoo.)

What GLAZA doesn't say is whether those surveyed were asked: if they knew that 13 elephants have died at the L.A. Zoo in 30 years; whether they knew that half of those had never reached age 20; whether they knew that all but one of those 13 showed "various states of degenerative joint disease and fatal orthopedic disabilities associated with lack of mobility due to close captivity", per Rep. Dennis Kucinich's letter to L.A. City Council urging closure of the exhibit. (Yes, I know, he's not from here, but he speaks against injustice and cruelty everywhere.) I also wonder if the survey mentioned that it was after years of condemnation, and new American Zoo Association rules for elephant management, that GLAZA proposed to expand its elephant enclosure.

As an L.A. Zoo member and a PETA member, I was getting emails from both camps. So I compared the arguments made by both sides in advance of the City Council meeting. The Zoo had trotted out animal TV show host Jack Hanna, who spoke in generalities in a video on their site. He exclaimed that the L.A. Zoo had "phenomenal habitats from day one". Really? It would seem even the zoo would disagree, considering how much money they put into reforming their three great apes exhibits and now their Pachyderm Forest. He estimated that the new exhibit's design is 10% of their total area. Well, actually the proposed 6 acre site is 5% of their total 113 acres. And only 3.6 of those will be roaming areas for the elephants. Incidentally, Kucinich's Nov. 2008 letter noted that the home range of a male Asian Elephant in its natural state is 200 sq. km. - 235 sq. km. The smaller number of those two is 8,237 times the outer perimeter of the new exhibit.

Hanna went on to make the kind of illogical comment one used to hear at the height of the Bush Administration: i.e. what are you protesting in the streets for, things can't really be as bad as you say, or people would be out in the streets! In the video Hanna admits how bad zoos used to be in past decades, but assures viewers "that's no longer the case," because "people in their communities are demanding the best for the animals." His thesis being; so ignore those people in the community demanding the best for Billy!

Sounding alarmingly like Fox News, the video asked Hanna what are the "intentions" of the activists who want Billy removed from the zoo. (Asking the favored 'A' side what the disfavored 'B' side is all about is a patented Fox News propaganda device.) Hanna didn't worry about putting words in the opponents' mouths, though, and speculated that they want to "put everything back out in the wild". Granted, some elephant advocacy groups cite how elephants live in the wild, but obviously, that's for comparison, to illustrate how far off their needs are from a typical captivity. And to show that being able to roam on sanctuary acreage and bond with other elephants is at least closer to that state than the current or planned L.A. Zoo exhibit.

Amusingly, Hanna borrowed another favorite Fox News angle: dismissing "celebrities" for involvement in a political cause. What do you call Jack Hanna if not a celebrity? And moreover, musician Slash and actress Betty White have also leapt to GLAZA's defense.
Zoo Trustee Betty White claims that those concerned that Billy might die a premature death at the zoo "would rather see species die out than to thrive in accredited zoos." 

Now, is that fair? Her two-page message in the zoo's winter newsletter goes into detail about "animal activists" (it must be 'activist' that's a dirty word, because she likes the word 'animal'). She accuses them of wanting "to remove all elephants from all zoos. And let's not kid ourselves, folks, it will not stop with elephants. Giraffes will be next. If they win this battle, they will not stop until zoos themselves are extinct."

That kind of alarmist rhetoric sounds like the Prop 8 campaign: if you allow gay marriage, then next it'll be polygamy, pedophilia, and bestiality! They'll be teaching our children to be gay in schools! Run for your lives!

White is no fool and I applaud her decades-long activism, even if she doesn't applaud others', but could we have a rational argument, please? Clearly, zoos are in no danger of disappearing. Maybe we can eventually get rid of the substandard ones - the roadside zoos, the ones with wholly ignorant staff, the ones that don't breed their animals or have any conservation aims - but White and GLAZA reject such zoos anyway. Merely asking the L.A. Zoo to prove they have the ability or expertise, in light of their elephant track record, ought to be seen as completely reasonable and no nefarious motives necessary. A zoo is like a hospital, or a university. Some departments might be brilliantly successful; others might be total failures. You should look at them case-by-case. I think the Zoo has done quite well for its great apes. 

Also, one often sees happy family units there (koala bears, snow leopards, various lemurs, etc.). See baby koala here:

But not all animal exhibits are created equal --- meerkats, for instance, one of which was depicted in The Lion King, live in colonies of 20-50 in the wild. They have such a sense of social responsibility that they rotate guard duty. The L.A. Zoo exhibit now has one meerkat, because all the others have died.

It is totally fair game for the general public to scrutinize how well different areas of the zoo are working, just like they do their police or school board. And the institution has the right to defend itself. But they don't get to say only their opinion is valid. Hospitals screw up in services to humans, and you don't necessarily have to be a neurosurgeon to notice it. At the meeting, as in their publicity, GLAZA frequently claimed that they were the only proper authority as to whether their animals were thriving as they should. Not cool.

The zoo brought out longtime staffers, and some fired-up volunteers, to be mightily offended, offended I tell you, by the accusations of past cruelty in curbing elephant behavior and of negligence in the deaths of a dozen elephants. But they did not provide an alternative explanation. It would be so much more reassuring if the L.A. Zoo admitted that the elephants didn't just die because of bad luck. One would have more faith that they have learned what to do and that, going forward, they will understand and be able to meet the needs of elephants (for exercise, soft substrate, stimulation, social bonds).

I was not initially sure which side to be on regarding this Pachyderm Forest. But the Zoo has talked me into it, or rather, out of it. Though I'm a dues-paying member - and you'd think, as such, owed a straight answer - I have been sent emotional appeals that vilify their critics and skirt the basic issues, which ought to be simple enough to lay out. Is the projected exhibit large enough? How much space will each elephant have and how much do they need according to AZA? Is there evidence that it's even possible to breed elephants in captivity? Instead, we get red herrings.

At City Council on Weds., several witnesses from the Zoo side derided the involvement of "celebrities" sitting across the aisle from them and urging Billy's release: Cher, Lily Tomlin, Kathryn Joosten ("Desperate Housewives", "The West Wing"), Bob Barker (who offered to pay $1.5 million to transfer Billy to P.A.W.S. near Sacramento), Kevin Nealon, Robert Culp (who a year ago tried unsuccessfully to sue the City and Zoo Director John Lewis), and I also thought I saw Anjelica Huston. The Zoo crowd was able to scoff because their own publicity gimmicks -- Betty White, Jack Hanna, and Slash -- did not show up that day. But the Zoo staff who spoke also put down their opponents as uninformed busybodies, despite the expert witnesses present who are critical of the Zoo and its plans. Since the mainstream media narrative of the elephant exhibit pits celeb amateurs against L.A. Zoo professionals, we should look at some of those on the "Free Billy" side:

1.) Dr. Joyce Poole: a wild elephant biologist and author of Coming of Age with Elephants, Poole made the crucial discovery that male elephants experience "musth" (regular sexual periods of extreme aggression). In 2005, she discovered that elephants learn to make sounds by imitating each other - the only land mammals besides primates to do so. She has worked with Cynthia Moss, the animal behaviorist at the center of two PBS Nature films on African elephants. And Poole was named the director of elephant conservation and management for the Kenya Wildlife Service.

2.) David Hancocks: a zoo architect and zoo director for thirty years, Hancocks wrote the book A Different Nature, an analytical and comparative history of zoos. He is an expert on evaluating the design of different species' exhibits. He is not "anti-zoo", he values the potential of zoos to do good; but he is an advocate for habitats and programs that serve the animals.

3.) Dr. Jennifer Conrad: a former L.A. Zoo vet who treated animals on five continents, including elephants in Asia and Africa, Conrad was also head veterinarian at a wildlife sanctuary. As a result, she created "The Paw Project" in Los Angeles to rehabilitate big cats' paws which had been damaged by the discredited practice of declawing; she led teams of surgeons in operations on circus tigers and the like to help reverse their crippling. She also works as an on-set vet for films.

These are impressively credentialed people who think the L.A. Zoo is not doing right by its current, past, or future elephants. Others urging the Council to remove elephants from the L.A. Zoo included two spokespeople from the Shambala Elephant Reserve, and Will Travers (Jr.) of Born Free USA, this country's legislative advocacy arm of the famous wilderness reserve in Africa.

Their theme is not some abstract notion that zoos are evil, but the very practical concern that Billy's health and life are in danger. On Weds. a large blow-up photo of Billy's foot was presented by Councilmember Rosendahl to the L.A. Zoo vet seated with Zoo Director John Lewis in the Council's inner circle; when the vet was asked if this meant Billy may be developing foot problems, like the zoo's elephants Gita and Tara who died at the zoo in the last 4 years, the vet couldn't say. It seemed he had no updates on the condition of Billy's feet, despite all the firestorm and all the publicity effort by the zoo about their excellent elephant management. But we heard assurances that the keepers give him daily foot care.

Rosendahl requested that Dr. Conrad be allowed to give a contrasting opinion; she answered that she doubted the zoo staff were even able to give Billy foot care right now, since he had been in musth, "in rut", since Nov., and was too dangerous to work with. She told the Council he's "in musth an abnormally long time". (Indeed, whenever I visit, no matter what time of year, he seems to be in musth: it's evident by the liquid streaming from his eyes and the urine that dribbles down his leg. )

Conrad asserted that the reason for his long musth is that "he's fat, because he can't exercise."

Bizarrely, the Council did not discuss what one might think would be at least a compromise: ship Billy out temporarily to P.A.W.S. while the exhibit is being built, thus letting him run around on acres and acres of grass instead of a hard surface and, hopefully, protect his feet from dangerous infections, give him exercise, and help him get a break from musth. The Zoo cheerleaders (who filled rows of the chamber, attired in green T-shirts, with a pep rally energy) were insistent that Billy belonged in "the only home he's ever known", and that "he loves his family." It's a little like saying Steve McQueen's character in Papillon enjoyed his cell, right in the middle of the scene of him  going crazy in solitary.

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