It could be enormously significant for elephants in captivity in Los Angeles, in all of California, and possibly even for elephants all across the country. Whichever way the judge rules, the trial of Billy the Elephant will have set a precedent.
For more than a week, Judge John Segal has been listening to testimony in a suit that sets out to demonstrate that Billy the Elephant and his two companions should be removed from captivity at the L.A. Zoo and sent to the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee.
Animal protection organizations have long sought to get Billy out of the intolerable conditions in which he has lived since he was captured in Asia, taken from his family, and sent to the L.A. Zoo as a “gift” in 1989. Today, now 27 years old, Billy is suffering from cracked toes, weary joints and arthritis from standing around endlessly on hard ground in what’s called an “exhibit” – along with other conditions, physical, emotional and psychological, that were outlined by the legal team seeking his release.
Three years ago, at a very contentious hearing, a group of prominent Los Angelinos including veteran celebrities of the animal protection world Bob Barker, Lily Tomlin, Cher and Robert Culp, asked the city council to release Billy. The city voted them down. So Robert Culp, star of the former I-Spy TV series, along with real estate businessman Aaron Leider, filed suit in L.A. Superior Court. Two years ago, Culp died, but the suit proceeded, and last week it finally came to trial.
Leider testified that Billy is in a heightened state of musth – or sexual arousal for much of the year and in the wild would be traveling long distances in search of mates. Instead, he bobs his head for hours and walks in circles. Zoo officials argued that he’s very happy, enjoys having carrots thrown at him, and has an animal psychiatrist on hand … which kind of makes the point.
Billy’s team, led by attorney David Casselman, gave detailed testimony on elephant cognition and described the difference between life among their large, deeply social, extended families in the wild, and standing around in a zoo setting. During cross-examination, the zoo team, apparently unable to address the actual issues at hand, was basically reduced to asking questions like “Have you been to the Zoo? … Do you live in L.A.? …” as if to try to prove that these experts were “outsiders” and had no right to be interfering. They also tried to block some of the witnesses, but the judge turned them down.
During the closing arguments, the zoo attorney seemed to be reading from a script he’d prepared before the trial even started. The judge didn’t take any notes from that presentation. On the other hand he took a lot of notes during Casselman’s closing arguments and asked many questions about the law and the interplay among several statutes. He also made it clear from his questions that he did not condone the use of bull hooks and electric shock devices, which the zoo had been forced to admit that they would not rule out using.
The judge’s ruling could come at any time – in days or weeks. The big question is whether he feels he has enough basis to close down the very expensive exhibit that the city approved in 2009 instead of agreeing to release Billy to a sanctuary. While they spent $42-million on expanding the exhibit, very little of that made any difference to the elephants. Most of it was about creating fake scenery for the human visitors to enjoy. And while many observers at the trial said that the case put forward by Billy’s team was overwhelming, the judge will inevitably find the financial factor weighing in his decision.
What’s not in doubt is that Billy and his pals had the very best team possible representing them. We’re all keeping our fingers crossed for them.