The Ongoing Saga of Billy the Elephant

The years-long battle over Billy, the Los Angeles Zoo’s best-known pachyderm, didn’t end when he moved into a new $42 million enclosure. He’s part of a plan to save the very survival of a species—not wild elephants but the ones that live in zoos

In the spring of 2010, a veterinarian named Dr. Thomas Hildebrandt flew over the savannahs of Africa, shooting male elephants with tranquilizer darts and—with the aid of something called an Acujack—masturbating them while they were unconscious so he could collect their sperm and cryogenically freeze it. Hildebrandt planned to inject it into the female zoo elephants of Europe and North America, which are not reproducing quickly enough to sustain the zoo population. One of the reasons they are not doing so is that male zoo elephants suffer from low libido and poor-quality sperm. Hildebrandt saw the project as a much-needed workaround. It was funded by zoos on both continents and dubbed “Operation Frozen Dumbo.”

The operation was the latest in a series of efforts by the zoo industry to address the dwindling number of zoo elephants, which has reached such a low mark that in 2005, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (the North American zoo industry’s trade group) issued an advisory stating that if something wasn’t done, there would soon be nothing left to display. At present there are only 168 African and 138 Asian elephants in North America. Less than half of those are thought to be still capable of procreation, and of those that are, the majority are precariously close to being inbred. Nearly one-third of the Asian population, for instance, was sired by two elephants named Charlie and Vance.

The zoo elephant shortage is partially the result of the passage of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which made it nearly impossible to import animals facing extinction. Prior to that, all one had to do was fly to where elephants live, shoot a mother, and capture its baby, so little thought had gone into the challenges of breeding them in captivity, which have proved to be extensive. In the beginning the issues seemed mostly logistical. Since elephants weigh an average of four tons and may be separated by thousands of miles, coupling them sometimes demanded the use of military transport planes. Over time, though, it became apparent that the real issue was infertility, which for reasons no one understands, afflicts both males and females.

The zoo receives 1.5 million visitors a year. Photographs by Maarten De Boer

Hildebrandt, who was born in East Germany and is 51 years old, heads the Department of Reproduction Management at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin. He’s been attempting to address the procreative problems of near-extinct animals in captivity his entire career. In 1998, Hildebrandt pioneered the method now used to artificially inseminate elephants, but his efforts were stymied by his inability to freeze sperm in such a way that would keep it viable when defrosted. Consequently he was forced to rely on the chilled sperm of bulls living within an eight-hour radius of an ovulating female, which is how long sperm can live outside the body if kept in a solution made from quail or hen egg yolk.

Hildebrandt’s difficulties stemmed from ice crystals, which would puncture the sperm cell membranes and destroy them. But in 2009, researchers devised a way to bypass this obstacle, using a method called “directional freezing” that in essence points the sharp ends of the ice crystals away from the cell.

Thus began Operation Frozen Dumbo, which if it succeeded could provide an unlimited supply of elephant sperm and ensure a fresh gene pool. But the outcome would not be known for 22 months, the gestation period for an elephant. In the meantime the AZA continued to pursue other avenues. It had already asked its 156-member zoos to begin collecting sperm from all elephants over the age of six that were not yet represented in the gene pool, which wasn’t many. Of the North American Asian elephant population, there were three, to be exact. One lived in Mexico City. The second lived in Albuquerque. The third was a 12,900-pound virgin in Los Angeles named Billy.

At the time Billy was the Los Angeles Zoo’s only elephant, and he did not seem a likely candidate to repopulate anything. He was 24 years old and had spent nearly all of his life in a pen the size of a small bowling alley, where he was often seen rocking back and forth the way some autistic people do and occasionally dry-humping an old tire. He was also the subject of one of the most bitter and longest-running lawsuits in the history of the zoo industry, one that began in 2007 and continues to this day.

The dispute initially appeared to be about the significance of Billy’s rocking motion. A group of concerned citizens saw it as an indication that he was not flourishing at the zoo or was possibly going insane, and they petitioned the city, which owns the zoo and all the animals in it, to send Billy to a 2,300-acre elephant sanctuary in Northern California. The zoo did not want him to go, however. Plans were already under way to build him a new enclosure called the Pachyderm Forest. So the zoo mounted a countercampaign to assure the city that Billy’s head bobbing was not a sign of distress but a sign of anticipatory pleasure at the thought of seeing his trainers. “It’s kind of like when I come home and my dog is jumping up and down on the patio,” the zoo’s director, John Lewis, told me. He also said that a small enclosure was no impediment to a healthy lifestyle, noting that Billy’s keepers had him do wind sprints by throwing carrots from one end of his enclosure to the other.

Billy had become a cause célèbre long before Hildebrandt reached Africa. Since 2003, famous people had been campaigning for his release, chief among them the renowned elephant behaviorist Joyce Poole, who is considered the Jane Goodall of pachyderms. In an open letter she stated that elephants don’t rock back and forth in the wild, that it was a coping mechanism for Billy’s “loneliness, boredom and frustration.” Halle Berry, Cher, and Bill Maher led their own crusades; Lily Tomlin called the zoo “elephant-speak for Guantanamo”; and people were picketing and posting videos on YouTube. One of them featured a song that went “Billy, his name is Billy. / He’s confined in a zoo with nothing to do / But bob and sway through every troubled day…”

To read the news accounts is to see how the topic of Billy’s well-being became overshadowed by other topics, such as whether a city with no elephant is a city with no self-esteem and whether the people who want Billy sent to the sanctuary are elitists trying to deny the rest of us access to the wild kingdom. When councilman Dennis Zine said he’d seen elephants in Africa and that they don’t belong in zoos, councilman Tom LaBonge, in whose district the zoo resides, proclaimed that not everyone can afford to go to Africa but that we can all take the freeway to the zoo. The notion that the public is entitled to see elephants during business hours has been championed by the zoo’s supporters, most notably actress Betty White, who declared that the campaign to free Billy was only the opening salvo in a far larger battle. “It will not stop with elephants,” she wrote in the zoo’s quarterly magazine. “Giraffes will be next. If they win this battle, they will not stop until zoos themselves are extinct.”

As farcical as it seemed, the bickering over Billy really was about things more critical than they appeared. In essence it was about what should be done with the last remaining members of a near-extinct species. And whether the zoo industry’s commitment to breeding them in captivity has taken the law of supply and demand to its utmost extreme by, in a sense, monetizing extinction itself.

John Lewis, who has been the Los Angeles Zoo’s director since 2003, has white hair and a mustache that recalls men who run ice cream parlors in Norman Rockwell paintings. Prior to his arrival in Los Angeles, he led the John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for 17 years. He also served as president of the AZA and is a former member of its accreditation committee. At 62 years old Lewis comes across as a cordial man of science. He makes a point never to anthropomorphize the animals in public. In fact, he doesn’t know the human names bestowed on most of the animals and doesn’t care to. “I know people like to say, ‘This is Bob the Monkey,’ ” he said. “But I find it diminishes them. I prefer to focus on the uniqueness of their digestive systems and whether they eat leaves and ferment them in their stomachs.”

Lewis presides over 1,200 animals that live in more or less three concentric circles. In the outer circle are the smaller apes and the hoof stock. In the second circle are the blue-chip animals most people come to the zoo to see: lions, tigers, bears, and apes. Elephants have always lived in the inner circle. Since the zoo is a botanical garden as well, Lewis also presides over the foliage between the cages, which is extraordinarily beautiful, especially in the late afternoon. There are fig trees, palms, honeysuckle, rosebushes, and cycads along with the insects and birds that dwell among them. Approximately 1.5 million people visit the zoo each year, and not all of them come with children. Many adults regard it as a place to commune with nature. I once heard a lady in the aviary cry out that it was like the Garden of Eden, and I’ve seen more than one woman stare deep into the eyes of a monkey and ask, “What are you thinking?”

Given the size of L.A., our zoo is surprisingly modest. It never makes the list of the country’s top ten zoos and is outclassed by those that do. Omaha’s zoo has America’s largest indoor rain forest and desert. The zoo in Columbus, Ohio, has an adjoining 18-hole golf course and a water park. Closer to home, the Los Angeles Zoo has always lived in the shadow of the San Diego Zoo, whose collection of blue-chip animals is larger by an order of magnitude and includes pandas—something L.A. will probably never have, because the Chinese government rents them out for $1 million a year and there aren’t enough to go around.

The L.A. Zoo was built in 1966, and much of it seems trapped in the past. A good many of the animals still live in tiny enclosures and grottoes, and the people who are upset about Billy tend to be just as upset about the jaguar, whose cage is roughly the size of a food truck. “In a city so wealthy and so preoccupied with storytelling and the creation of illusion, you would expect something spectacular, almost breathtaking,” Australian zoo designer David Hancocks told me. “But the Los Angeles Zoo is strangely disappointing.”

Lewis was hired by mayor James Hahn in the hope that he would finally make the zoo world-class. He had the capital to do so. In 1998, bond monies were approved for the zoo to build ten new attractions costing $172 million. Eight have been completed during Lewis’s tenure, among them Sea Life Cliffs, Campo Gorilla Reserve, a reptile facility, and Rainforest of the Americas. But Lewis will most likely be remembered for the Pachyderm Forest, where he said he planned to breed elephants in order to save them from extinction.