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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Despite the lawsuit, the Pachyderm Forest opened in December 2010. The exhibit, which had been renamed Elephants of Asia, had a giant red-and-orange Thai-themed barn, two ponds, a waterfall, a mud wallow, and additional features not visible to visitors. The rock formation behind the waterfall was actually a hollow booth with little windows for the staff to fill with vegetables, and the depth of the smaller pond was adjustable so that, in the event a baby were born, it could splash around without drowning.

The zoo had even managed to procure a pair of females. However, the shortage is so profound, the only ones available were two circus refugees named Tina and Jewel, both of whom were past childbearing age and suffered from gum disease. They wouldn’t be able to share Billy’s space, either; the zoo feared that in his near-constant state of sexual arousal, he might inadvertently kill them. And so he and the pair were cordoned off from one another by a series of fences and hydraulic gates through which Billy could touch them only with his trunk.

Lewis and I went to see Elephants of Asia one morning not long after it opened. The trial was still ahead, but he was confident the zoo would prevail. “I know they’re wrong,” he said of his opponents. It galled Lewis how they claimed that elephants live an average of 70 years in the wild and only 40 in zoos. “The reality is, elephants in the wild and zoos live an average of 40 years,” he said. Lewis’s statement is based on the position of the AZA, which allows that elephants do live to 70 in an ideal world, but since the world is not ideal, one must factor in the 35,000 elephants reportedly killed by poachers each year, which lowers the combined life expectancy to about 40. “You and I can live to 115, but probably we’re going to live until about 80,” he said. “And they weren’t explaining that context.”

The Chimpanzees of Mahale Mountains exhibit opened in 1998, replacing a concrete enclosure. Photographs by Maarten De Boer.

Because Lewis does not give interviews alone, we were accompanied by the zoo’s then-marketing director, Jason Jacobs, who drove us along in a little cart that had been painted in zebra stripes. Every so often he would peer at us in the rearview mirror with a look of weariness. Jacobs could not grasp why the media had focused on Billy when there were so many other animals at the zoo whose stories sometimes bordered on the miraculous. “The Los Angeles Zoo has successfully raised condors, bringing them back from the brink of extinction, but nobody ever talks about that,” he said, adding that one of the orangutan’s air sacs had been surgically removed in a groundbreaking operation.

The Los Angeles Zoo also has among the largest collections of chimpanzees in the country and is only 1 of 14 zoos in North America to house François’ langurs, an endangered leaf-eating monkey. In some cases the most interesting thing about the animals is how they came to be at the zoo. Many of the reptiles were confiscated from a Malaysian smuggling ring, and customs agents at LAX once donated a baby pangolin, a Congolese anteater prized for its delicate meat. This one was too young to eat when captured, so hunters sold it to some tourists who tried to bring it back to Sherman Oaks in a basket. “And then there was Alfred the blind sea lion,” Jacobs said. “He washed ashore with head trauma, and we decided to take him in, and now he’s sired offspring.”

When we pulled up to Elephants of Asia, Tina and Jewel were sunning themselves in the yard. Across the way was a pavilion where people could learn how much the creatures eat and defecate and similar details. “After rainstorms elephants move toward the rainy spots, looking for tender new grasses,” one of the signs read. Other signs explained how you could text money to help resolve the human-elephant conflicts in Cambodia. “People can actually make donations right there to that fieldwork,” Lewis said.

Billy was in the barn in his elephant restraint device. Up close he was massive, with speckled, leathery skin and tiny eyes. Behind him there were rows of empty stalls. Two had padded floors on which a baby might someday be born. Lewis appeared resigned to the fact that a fertile female would not be arriving in the foreseeable future. The AZA has instituted new guidelines, he explained, stipulating that groups of bonded elephants should not be split up. “Our hope is if there is a pair of females somewhere and one dies…” Lewis said. If that didn’t work, the zoo was prepared to house a bachelor herd. “One of the things that all the zoos are dealing with now is that if we’re going to breed elephants, 50 percent are going to be bulls,” he said, noting that three of the larger stalls had been sized and reinforced for male elephants. In the meantime the zoo was continuing to attempt to collect Billy’s sperm. “This is where it all happens,” Lewis said, referring to the elephant restraint device. But things had not happened as planned. Though Billy tolerated the prostate massage, thus far he had refused to ejaculate. “We may have to call in experts,” Lewis said.

By that Lewis no doubt meant Thomas Hildebrandt, who was trying to get the African sperm past customs agents in Europe and America. He was also monitoring the menstrual cycle of female zoo elephants on both continents to determine which should receive it. The process would be costly and complicated, involving three-meter catheters, light-emitting endoscopes, video monitors, and a staff of at least eight. It has proved unreliable as well. A female at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle has reportedly been inseminated more than 100 times to no avail. And since the first procedure took place in 2000, nearly half of the 50 babies conceived through artificial insemination have died—14 of them in utero or at birth. Eight never made it to their fifth birthdays.

In June 2012, the lawsuit finally went to trial, and the zoo had done all it could to cast doubt on the legitimacy of PAWS. Jason Jacobs noted that the facility was not accredited by the AZA, that it didn’t allow vistors without appointments, and that it didn’t have 24-hour veterinary service like the zoo. “Sanctuaries are for animals who don’t have options,” he told L.A. Weekly, as if PAWS were a halfway house for unwanted elephants. Zoo supporters went so far as to suggest that the facility was so large, people who wanted to visit Billy might not be able to see him through the foliage. The campaign appeared to have its intended effect. According to pollsters hired by the zoo, the majority of those surveyed believed that “closing the habitat and shipping Billy to a distant location would deprive local schoolchildren and their families of the opportunity to learn about the threat of extinction facing Asian elephants today.”

But now the zoo would be forced to make sound legal arguments against the expert witnesses assembled by Casselman. There was Joyce Poole, who would be flying in from Norway; Lori Marino, a professor of neuropsychology at Emory University; renowned zoo designer David Hancocks from Australia; and veterinarians appalled by Billy’s condition. The zoo couldn’t discredit all that expertise, so instead it tried to discredit the relevance of their testimony. To this end the city attorney representing the zoo sought to bifurcate the universe of elephants into two distinct groups: those that live in the wild and those that live in zoos. This would enable the zoo to argue that while the plaintiffs’ witnesses may be knowledgeable about wild elephants, they knew little about zoo elephants, of which there was only one true expert: the zoo industry itself. As Lewis explained, “We have experience caring for animals in the zoo, and that can be very different from the way animals care for themselves in the wild.”

The legal strategy was undermined by the zoo’s own witnesses, most of them zoo staff. For instance, the feet of captive elephants are prone to arthritis and other ailments related to the soil in their enclosures being too compacted by their great weight. During the course of the dispute, Lewis had assured the city that the zoo went to tremendous lengths to protect Billy’s feet by rototilling the soil every few days to keep it from hardening. The zoo’s witnesses, however, testified that the new enclosure had never once been rototilled. They also testified that the Elephants of Asia exhibit was not all that Lewis had claimed it would be to the city council. Of the six acres he promised, only two were accessible to Billy, partly because the enclosure had been subdivided to keep him away from the females and partly because the vegetation throughout his pen had been electrified to prevent him from devouring it.

The most noteworthy revelation pertained to the zoo’s animal behavior department, on whose opinions Lewis had based his claims that Billy’s rocking motion was not a sign of distress. During the trial it was revealed that the department head, Cathleen Cox, specialized in primates. Cox testified that she had no firsthand experience with pachyderms and had never even read a book about one; Billy was the only elephant she’d ever known. As for Billy’s keeper, Vicky Guarnett, she maintained she knew in her heart that he was happy.

The judge was unconvinced. His decision began with the line “All is not well at the Elephants of Asia exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo,” and it grew worse from there as he recounted the misleading statements made by the zoo and commented on the ignorance of its staff, which he described as suffering from an “anthropomorphic fantasy that the elephants are happy…in captivity.” As appalled as the judge was by the goings-on at the zoo, however, he did not see that it met the legal definition of cruelty or negligence. And so Elephants of Asia was not shut down, and Billy was not sent to the sanctuary. The zoo was simply ordered to rototill the soil in Billy’s enclosure and exercise him more.

If Lewis found the revelations embarrassing, he gave no indication in public. “It’s the zoo version of, ‘Do you still beat your wife? ’ ” he told the Los Angeles Times when the trial ended. A few days later the zoo posted a coloring book drawing of an elephant on its Web site, stating, “Asian elephants are an endangered species threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation,” and that for every colored-in elephant sent in, the zoo would donate $1 to conservation programs in Sri Lanka and Cambodia.

 

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Casselman and the zoo appealed the judge’s ruling, but the lawsuit has since been eclipsed by other events. In August 2012, a month after the trial ended, the Vienna Schönbrunn Zoo held a press conference to announce that one of its females had been impregnated with the defrosted sperm of an elephant named Steve, who resides at the Phinda private game reserve in South Africa. The director of the zoo held up an ultrasound of the fetus, whose trunk and large ears were unmistakable. A year later the baby was born, and in May 2014, a second was born in England, also from Steve’s sperm, and two more females have since been inseminated.

When I spoke to Hildebrandt afterward, he seemed both elated and sad. He knew the elephants that he helped bring into the world would not be normal in the true sense of the word. “Elephants in zoos will never have behavior like they do in the wild,” he said. “That’s for sure.” As he saw it, though, the only answer to this problem was to breed more of them. If he could do that, he might at least create larger groups that approximate the normal herd structure in the wild. This, in turn, might make the elephants less neurotic and possibly even more fertile. “The most important element in the life of an animal is offspring,” he said, “and having elephants with babies will be ten times better than what we have now.” There was no time to dispute the ethics. “All we can hope for is that the zoos improve,” Hildebrandt said, adding that he thinks they are.

The African elephant sperm he’s collected is now being stored in cryobanks in Europe. As of early summer, he had not been able to get it through the red tape of U.S. Customs, nor had he found a way to freeze the sperm of Asian elephants. But success on both fronts is surely imminent, and the zoos of North America are readying themselves for it. In the last three years alone Oklahoma City spent $13 million on a new enclosure that hopes to house 5, and the Denver Zoo spent $55 million, where 12 could live. This year Wichita’s Sedgwick Zoo announced it was breaking ground on a $10 million exhibit wherein visitors will be able to boat alongside the elephants. And next year the Oregon Zoo plans to open an exhibit that is expected to cost nearly $60 million, with room for a dozen.

So far no zoo seems to be going the route Casselman and Doyle have strongly recommended to the L.A. Zoo: Casselman had hoped to persuade it to replace Billy with an animatronic elephant. He envisioned children climbing atop it so as to better appreciate its massiveness and the complexity of its trunk, while Doyle envisioned interactive consoles and giant screens projecting live feeds from a national park in Kenya. It is more than likely that Billy will live out the rest of his days at Elephants of Asia, where he continues rocking back and forth before tens of thousands of visitors each year. But if and when he produces enough viable sperm, Doyle sees a new legal battle over who will control it. “After all,” she says, “doesn’t it technically belong to the taxpayers of Los Angeles?”

 


Tamar Brott is a writer based in Oakland. Her story about dog trainer Vladislav Roytapel appeared in the May 2009 issue.