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
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The L.A. Zoo’s jaguar, whose enclosure has stirred criticism for being too small. Photographs by Maarten De Boer.

TThe dispute over Billy was not the first of its kind. During the past ten years, campaigns have been waged against zoos around the country, and a handful have been effective. Zoos in Detroit, Toronto, Anchorage, San Francisco, and San Jose have sent their elephants to sanctuaries, and the Bronx Zoo has pledged to close its exhibit when the last of its elephants expire. The person behind many of those efforts is a woman in her fifties named Catherine Doyle, who has long brown hair and a nose stud and lives in Hollywood with her husband and son. She has been plaguing Lewis since 2004, when she first began putting the Los Angeles Zoo on her annual list of the worst zoos for elephants.

Doyle currently serves as director of science, research, and advocacy at Performing Animal Welfare Society, the sanctuary in the Northern California town of San Andreas. But in 2004, she was the elephant campaign director of the animal advocacy group In Defense of Animals, which involved flying around the country and trying to persuade zoos to send the elephants to PAWS or to the nation’s only other sanctuary, located in Hohenwald, Tennessee. Sometimes Doyle would even provide funding for the animals’ transportation, much of it donated by Bob Barker, the former host of The Price Is Right. Over the years Barker has spent several million dollars airlifting zoo elephants to sanctuaries and paying for their housing.

Back then Doyle usually dressed in a man’s black suit jacket with black leggings, unless she was traveling in the Midwest, in which case she’d remove the nose stud and put on a skirt and heels. “I don’t want to look marginal,” she said.

She would often begin her presentations by noting that elephants are known to be highly intelligent and self-aware, meaning they can recognize themselves in the mirror, a trait thought to be shared by few animals. After that she might explain how they live in large herds led by matriarchs and that males leave the herd once they reach sexual maturity but that females remain together for life, helping one another through childbirth, rearing one another’s offspring, and mourning one another’s dead. Keeping such animals and breeding them in captivity, where many lead solitary lives, is both cruel and detrimental to their health, she’d say.

One set of statistics she’s frequently cited is that the natural life span of elephants in the wild is 70 years; Africans average 33 years and Asians 44 in zoos, where they suffer from diseases such as herpes, tuberculosis, obesity, and arthritis, not to mention mental problems. “Billy’s not the only elephant who rocks back and forth,” Doyle told me. “You see the same stereotypical behavior all across the country. I’ve even heard of elephants self-mutilating. It gets so bad sometimes, they have to be put on Thorazine.”

When Doyle first started, she was admittedly naive. She wore an elephant suit to a rally in El Paso and nearly collapsed from heat prostration. But in the years since, she’d come to understand that it is no easy thing to persuade people to give up their elephants. They tend to be associated with the happier aspects of childhood—Babar and Dumbo and the notion of the gentle giant—and some people can become irrational at the thought of their elephants being taken away, even in the face of scientific evidence indicating they’d be better off elsewhere. Doyle learned, whenever possible, to focus on the fiscal irresponsibility of maintaining elephants. It costs an average of $100,000 a year just to keep one alive at a zoo. They eat 250 pounds of fresh produce a day, for example. They can also be lethal. So many keepers—16—have been killed by elephants during the past 24 years that the AZA now requires its member zoos to install elephant restraint devices, which are steel cages the size of a 7-Eleven, with adjustable walls, a series of small portholes, and hydraulic gates that allow zoo staff to examine the elephant without fear of reprisal. Doyle hoped that once people heard these things, they would conclude that the money might be better spent on, say, expanding the city’s police force.

This strategy seemed especially apt in the case of Billy. His new enclosure, which would eventually cost $42 million, was to be constructed during a period when L.A. was cutting city services in order to avoid bankruptcy in the future. Doyle argued that it would be economical and humane to send Billy to PAWs, the only North American sanctuary with the capacity to contain male elephants. Barker, Tomlin, and Cher had pledged $1.5 million between them to cover Billy’s costs, and according to Doyle, a barn had already been reserved for him. It was set in the middle of the sanctuary, on a three-acre hillock that has a view of the Sierra, with other elephants nearby. There was Maggie from Anchorage, Lulu from San Francisco, Mara from San Jose, Wanda from Detroit, and Nicholas, who used to ride a bicycle in the circus. From the barn you could see their silhouettes tearing down branches and napping in the grass. But you would never be able to see them having sex, because the sanctuary finds the idea of raising more elephants in captivity to be repugnant. “The day they bring in a breeding female for Billy,” Ed Stewart, who runs the sanctuary, told me, “is the day I lie down in front of a truck.”

One of the sad facts of life is the ever-growing list of things we used to regard as wholesome that are now widely thought to be vaguely sinister, like priests or doughnuts or zoos. That zoos have come to be on this list is partly due to activists like Doyle and partly due to the proliferation of nature documentaries that serve only to reinforce their claims that zoo animals are torpid and sad and not living as they should. The frequency of bizarre zoo tragedies involving negligence has not helped matters. In the past eight years alone a zookeeper in Tucson inadvertently killed a giraffe by feeding it a poisonous plant, a goat at the Calgary Zoo accidentally strangled itself to death in front of small children while playing with a rope toy, and a hippopotamus in Topeka was parboiled in its own wading pool as a result of a boiler malfunction.

It is only natural that the AZA, whose member zoos generate an estimated $2 billion a year, has a crisis management team dedicated to neutralizing the effect of such mishaps and the detractors who cite them. One way it does so is by downplaying the notion that zoos constitute an industry at all. The AZA portrays itself as the “world’s preeminent wildlife conservation association” whose mission is not to entertain so much as to educate the public about the mysteries of the animal kingdom, a rapidly growing portion of which faces extinction. To visit a zoo these days is to see merry-go-rounds that have been transformed into “endangered species carousels” and signs posted outside the animals’ cages noting how many are left on earth and soliciting donations on their behalf. The AZA claims that these efforts, along with its breeding programs, are so important, the animal kingdom’s very survival depends on zoos. “We’re not like the steel industry,” an AZA spokesman told me. “We’re a hedge against extinction.”

This is a line of thinking Lewis adheres to. He argues that if Billy were hidden away near the Sierra, where no one could see him, the public would have no way of knowing about the plight of wild elephants. They are being killed by poachers at an estimated rate of one every 15 minutes, and the forests and savannahs where they used to live are being turned into farmland. Because there is nowhere left to hide or forage, they devour the crops and are frequently killed by farmers, who regard them less as a dwindling species and more as a terrifying breed of giant locust. “By keeping them in zoos and getting people excited about them and spending money while they’re here, we can send money to Cambodia to support what’s going on with elephants in the wild,” Lewis said. “We have been donating close to $30,000 a year to Flora & Fauna International. They’re teaching farmers how to protect their crops from elephants.”

Billy in his two-acre portion of the Elephants of Asia exhibit. Photographs by Maarten De Boer.

The idea that elephants must remain in zoos so they can serve as ambassadors and fund-raisers for their brethren in the wild became a dominant theme in the debate over Billy. Doyle had come up against this argument in previous campaigns, because it is one of the primary talking points of the AZA, which has framed its desire to breed elephants as a moral imperative.

And many of the zoo’s supporters believe that it is. Karen Winnick, who is president of the Zoo Commission (the five-member oversight panel appointed by the mayor), told the L.A. city council that the survival of elephants depended on the donations of zoo-goers. “Once we no longer exhibit an animal, we can no longer support conservation efforts in the wild,” she said.

It was partly on the basis of this argument that the city council approved construction of the Pachyderm Forest and later its expansion to six manicured acres. However, the true scope of Lewis’s ambitions could only be seen in the renderings of the elephant barn: The building had 11 stalls, which the zoo evidently hoped Billy would populate himself, giving it one of the largest zoo-elephant populations in North America. A call had already gone out to find him a mate, and staff had begun training him to stand on his hind legs so he would know what to do when she arrived. What’s more, Billy was being prepped for sperm collection, which is generally accomplished by inserting one’s arm into the elephant’s anus and massaging his prostate until he ejaculates. If that doesn’t work, a rubber elephant vagina can be used, but these can be cumbersome.

Construction on the Pachyderm Forest began in 2006. The following year the late actor Robert Culp and a Brentwood real estate agent named Aaron Leider sued the City of Los Angeles and John Lewis to halt construction, arguing that even if it were significantly larger than Billy’s existing pen and made to look like paradise, the Pachyderm Forest’s six acres would never be adequate for a bull elephant. “It’s like raising a human child in a regular-size closet, then you move him to a walk-in closet and hail it as some kind of a wonderful change,” said Culp and Leider’s attorney, David Casselman.

A 61-year-old with white, receding hair and a rapid-fire way of speaking, Casselman works in Tarzana but frequently flies to Cambodia, where he’s established his own elephant sanctuary. It was clear from the start that Casselman hoped to use the lawsuit to expose what he considered the mendacity of the zoo industry, of which there was no clearer evidence in his mind than the $42 million price tag of the Pachyderm Forest. “Do you have any idea what that amount of money could do for the elephants of Cambodia?” he said to me. “I personally bought a million acres there for a quarter of a million dollars. They could have bought a hundred square miles of land that would have protected them in perpetuity.” As for the $30,000 the zoo donates each year to Cambodia, he scoffed. “The AZA has done nothing to help the elephants of Cambodia that I’m aware of. It’s all just a grandiose scheme to imprison animals and use them to raise money in the name of conservation.”

Casselman filed suit under an obscure taxpayer statute that allows citizens to sue their government if it has engaged in waste or fraud. By reframing Billy as a piece of city property and using the industry’s own elephant mortality rates against it, he could argue that if Billy were placed in the Pachyderm Forest, he would perish prematurely, thereby wasting taxpayer money. The city tried to have the lawsuit dismissed, but the court agreed to hear it, which Casselman regarded as a fortuitous sign, if not a victory unto itself. No one had used this legal strategy before, and the interest it generated in the animal rights community was immense. “I’m getting calls from all over the country,” Casselman told me when I met him. “People are watching.”