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LA Zoo Elephant Exhibit - Cruelty and Confinement

The LA Zoo has a long history of confining elephants in severely inadequate conditions that deny the animals the space, stimulation, and social structure they need. The zoo’s current elephant enclosure, the ‘Elephants of Asia’ exhibit, opened on December 16, 2010 at a cost of $42 million. While an Asian elephant in the wild may roam freely over a range of 150,000 acres, the exhibit consists of just two acres of walkable ground subdivided into five smaller yards – not nearly enough room for the three resident elephants, Billy, Tina, and Jewel.

Tina and Jewel havelived at the zoo since November 2010; Billy has been there since 1989, and has exhibited symptoms of psychological distress -- including head bobbing, repetitive swaying, and t stamping -- for years.

DeRose and LCA protesting outside the LA Zoo in 2006
  DeRose and LCA protesting outside the LA Zoo in 2006

LCA Fights Cruelty to Elephants at the LA Zoo

Chris DeRose and LCA have been fighting to end elephant captivity since 1986; LCA’s 'Elephant Sanctuaries, Not Captivity!' campaign has involved litigation, media outreach, and numerous protests.

In 2005, DeRose handcuffed himself to the enclosure of Gita, a female Asian elephant (who died in 2006), in protest of the abhorrent conditions at the LA Zoo. The action gained local news coverage, bringing much-needed attention to the problem.

Chris DeRose handcuffed to the elephant exhibit at the LA Zoo in 2005
  Chris DeRose handcuffed to the elephant exhibit at the LA Zoo in 2005

The campaign has also included a mobile billboard quoting former mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s pledge to close the LA Zoo’s elephant exhibit. “A zoo is no place for an animal as large as an elephant,” Villaraigosa said on the campaign trail in 2004. “We need to move the elephants out.”

LCA’s mobile billboard outside the LA Zoo
  LCA's mobile billboard outside the zoo

In 2006, after Mayor Villaraigosa failed to fulfill his promise, DeRose confronted him publicly for allowing the elephants to continue to suffer at the zoo.

Chris DeRose confronting Mayor Villaraigosa in 2006
  Chris DeRose confronting Mayor Villaraigosa in 2006

During Villairagosa’s campaign and mayoral term, two female elephants at the LA Zoo died – Tara in 2004, and Gita in 2006. Following these deaths, the zoo agreed to relocate an elderly elephant, Ruby, to the PAWS Elephant Sanctuary in Northern California where she lived until 2011, dying at the age of 50. Celebrity activists including Bob Barker, Lily Tomlin, and Cher pledged $1.5 million to cover the cost to relocate Billy to PAWS as well, but the LA Zoo refused.

Ruby at PAWS
  Ruby at PAWS

DeRose warned that relocation campaigns could “set a dangerous precedent: zoos will view sanctuaries as a way to get their ‘surplus’ and ‘problem’ elephants off their hands while continuing to breed more elephants, instead of realizing that zoos are the problem – the small spaces, the concrete floors and the unnatural social groupings are slowly driving the elephants insane while their feet and bodies deteriorate before our eyes.”

“I want to make this clear,” DeRose added. “LCA is committed for the rights of all elephants, not just the welfare of one. We wanted to see Ruby and Billy move out of the zoo as much as anyone, maybe more...but the focus should remain to close the elephant exhibit once and for all. [Ruby’s] move is nothing more than clearing out old inventory to make room for the new.”

DeRose’s warning came true; Tina and Jewel were brought to the LA Zoo soon after Ruby’s relocation to PAWS.

Billy at the LA Zoo
  Billy at the LA Zoo

Legal Action Against the LA Zoo's Elephant Exhibit

In 2007, actor Robert Culp (now deceased) and real estate broker Aaron Leider filed a lawsuit seeking to close the LA Zoo’s elephant exhibit and move the elephants to sanctuaries.

LA Superior Court Judge John L. Segal agreed with many of the plaintiffs’ arguments, stating in his ruling in 2012, “All is not well at [the LA Zoo]. Contrary to what the zoo’s representatives may have told the ... city council in order to get construction of the $42 million exhibit approved and funded, the elephants are not healthy, happy, or thriving.”

Unfortunately, Judge Segal did not rule to close the exhibit. He offered limited improvements by requiring the zoo to cease using bull hooks and electric shock on elephants, to exercise the elephants at least two hours a day, and to rototill the exhibit's soil.

Leider appealed the decision, again seeking the closure of the elephant exhibit and relocation of the elephants to sanctuaries. LCA provided video evidence of the zoo’s cruel training methods, and later filed an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief in support of Leider’s appeal.

The city filed an appeal of its own in an attempt to overturn the minimal standards of care mandated by Judge Segal.

In 2016, both appeals were rejected and the original ruling upheld.

  Footage of Billy enduring abusive and demeaning training at the LA Zoo

Despite this decision, LCA will never give up fighting on behalf of the elephants confined to the LA Zoo and other cruel facilities.

What You Can Do

  1. Do not take your family to the LA zoo or any other facility that keeps captive elephants.
  2. Educate others – let them know the cruelty of elephant captivity.
  3. Support LCA’s work fighting cruelty to elephants and other animals by donating today.


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