City Awaits Judge's Ruling On Possible Shutdown of Zoo's Ele
Los Feliz Journal
By Colin Stutz, Ledger Contributing Writer
GRIFFITH PARK—The Los Angeles Zoo's elephant new exhibit that opened less than two years ago at a cost of $42 million could be shut down and the three elephants that live there relocated if the plaintiff in a California Superior Court case—heard at trial for six days in June—has his way. The judge is now deciding the case.
The plaintiff, Aaron Leider, a real estate agent and animal rights activist, claims in his lawsuit the conditions of the exhibit called "Elephants of Asia" are cruel to its three Asian Elephant inhabitants, Billy, Tina and Jewel.
"[The elephants'] captivity kills them and it kills them in a very protracted, long, suffering way," said Leider, in an interview after the June 22nd court proceedings. "They literally die by their bones going through their toes."
As both the zoo and its animals belong to the city, Leider's current civil lawsuit—the latest legal filing in the case that started in five years ago— claims the exhibit is a waste of tax payer funds and property.
Nearly half the funding for construction of the exhibit—$20.3 million—was from two voter approved bond measures. $19.3 million was from private donations through the zoo's fundraising arm, the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association (GLAZA); and another $2.3 million was from the Zoo's Enterprise Trust Fund—funds collected from the zoo's own revenue. Annual upkeep for the three elephants, was estimated at $342,000 in 2005, according to documents filed in the lawsuit.
The initial complaint, filed in 2007 by now-deceased actor Robert Culp and Leider, asked the court to stop construction of the new exhibit altogether.
Having lost that round in the legal proceedings, Leider, now wants the finished exhibit to shut down completely and the pachyderms sent to sanctuaries to live out the rest of their lives with significantly more room to roam and less constructed ways of living.
The defendants in the current case, Zoo Director John Lewis and the City of Los Angeles, just want all this to end and go away.
"This is a baseless lawsuit surrounding allegations and accusations of a speculative nature," said an L.A. Zoo-issued statement. "We look forward to moving pass this lawsuit and getting back to our business of conservation, education and providing great care to our elephants as well as all of other animals here at the Los Angeles Zoo."
The captivity of elephants has been a longtime lightening rod for animal rights activists who argue the animals, which typically walk 30 miles a day in the wild, according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, (PETA).
Since the mid-1970s, the plaintiff's court documents claim, 14 of the zoo's elephants have died and 11 have been transferred due to behavioral problems. This statistic, according to Delcianna Winders, Director of Captive Animal Law Enforcement with PETA, though significantly higher than the wild, is not uncommon for zoos.
"More and more zoos are recognizing they cannot supply adequate services to these animals and are closing down their exhibits and sending them off to sanctuaries," said Winders, citing the Toronto Zoo as the most recent to commit to sending its elephants to a sanctuary in Northern California.
In this trial, Leider's primary assertions are that the packed ground in the 3.6 acre zoo exhibit is too hard; that the only 2.2 acres of walk able ground is too small, and that the zoo has provided inadequate husbandry practices and veterinary care that exacerbate the exhibit-caused health concerns. These include arthritis and foot abscesses, Leider claims, which are some of the leading causes of captive elephant deaths.
The case is being tried civilly. Leider does not seek a criminal conviction of Lewis or any other person. Accordingly there is no right to criminal law requirements such as a jury trial or use of the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard of proof. The verdict falls solely on Judge John L. Segal, which, Leider said, could set precedent for similar cases with zoos across the country.
A majority of the trial focused on the welfare of the exhibit's bull elephant, the 27-year-old Billy.
Leider's attorney, David Casselman, asserted Billy shows clear signs of emotional strain and anxiety, pointing to an unnatural "stereotypic" bobbing behavior he does frequently. The equivalent of stereotypic behavior in a human, Casselman said, citing a deposition from L.A. Zoo Director of Research Cathleen Cox, would be a child anxiously holding itself, rocking back and forth.
The defense and one of its expert witnesses argued that this bobbing was not "stereotypic" but, rather, "repetitive" behavior Billy's been doing since he arrived at the zoo in 1989. According to the witness, the head bobbing, instead, indicates anticipation for something like feeding or exercise.
Casselman continued to state in the past few years Billy has experienced weight issues, foot, leg and joint problems, toe cracks and abscesses, urine burns, skin lesions, a broken tusk, sand colic and other ailments, all as results from his environment and care.
In cross examinations with the zoo's research director Cox and the zoo's chief veterinarian, Curtis Eng, Casselman argued the zoo's veterinary staff is unqualified to work with elephants and the exhibit lacks significant attention by knowledgable or senior staff members.
Though no one from the zoo admitted any failures, their witnesses admitted the zoo has no experts on wild elephant behavior or health and has not consulted any; that the zoo is understaffed on veterinarians; and its average turnover rate for veterinarians is four years. Casselman, during trial, concluded after cross-examination, that many zoo employees are lacking significant relationship history with the animals.
Also, Casselman argued the zoo's elephants typically have an hour or less of daily exercise even though one to two hours is ideal husbandry practice.
The defense, meanwhile, focused on proving its care is adequate and testimonies that the elephants are in good health.
Leider's interest in this issue first began in 1992 when an African elephant named Hannibal died as zoo officials prepared to move him to Mexico.
After years of protesting the animals' confinement, in 2007 he entered litigation with actor Culp against the city and Lewis. Since the suit began, Culp died in 2010.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, in 2005, asked for a formal review of conditions of the elephants at the zoo as a precursor to the construction of the Elephants of Asia exhibit.
After Villaraigosa was satisfied with that review, the Los Angeles City Council voted in favor 13-2 of construction of the exhibit.
"The zoo exhibit is a lie to the public," said Leider. "All the greenery, all the trees, they're all hot-wired elephants can't touch them. They said it's three and half acres, it's really 2.2 usable for the elephants and they're literally surrounded by electrical fields the whole time. . . Those aren't really what elephants look like, so you're lying to the patrons who come to the zoo."