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Judge Rules For Elephants Against L.A. Zoo

billy-elephant-1-072512“All is not well at the Elephants of Asia exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo,” wrote Judge John L. Segal in his judgment against the Los Angeles Zoo yesterday.

“Contrary to what the zoo’s representatives may have told the Los Angeles City Council in order to get construction of the $42 million exhibit approved and funded, the elephants are not healthy, happy, and thriving.”

It is a stunning indictment against a zoo that had built a $42-million new enclosure for the three elephants on display there, most of which was to enhance the viewing experience of visitors, rather than the lives of Billy, Tina and Jewel, its three inhabitants. The judge continued:

… The Elephants of Asia exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo is not a happy place for elephants, nor is it for members of the public who go to the zoo and recognize that the elephants are neither thriving, happy, nor content. Captivity is a terrible existence for any intelligent, self-aware species, which the undisputed evidence shows elephants are. To believe otherwise, as some high-ranking zoo employees appear to believe, is delusional. And the quality of life that Billy, Tina, and Jewel endure in their captivity is particularly poor.

The judge poured more scorn on zoo officials, including on the L.A. Zoo’s chief veterinarian, Dr. Curtis Eng. One of the main concerns for elephants in zoos anywhere is that their feet suffer from standing around on the hard ground, compared with their life in the wild, which involves walking many miles on soft soil and grass. The judge wrote:

Shockingly, [Dr. Eng] also  testified that the keepers have told him that they regularly rototill the soil in the exhibit, when in fact the opposite is true: It is undisputed that the elephant keepers in the Los Angeles Zoo do not rototill the surface of the exhibit, and never have. Not once. It is this kind of testimony, again offered by defendants, that makes one wonder whether the keepers and medical staff are working in the same zoo.

Temptation and frustration

Judge Segal was also dismayed by the fact that the zoo had built some natural-looking surrounds to mimic the environment of elephants in the wild, but that if the elephants at the zoo attempt to go near these trees and grasses, they get an electric shock.

[This] makes life for the elephants in the Los Angeles Zoo even worse. It is undisputed that elephants by nature are attracted to and have evolved to need and use trees, bushes, and grass. Mr. Andrews (again, one of defendants’ witnesses) testified that that it would be healthy for the elephants if they could knock down trees and rub against them, and that it would be a “nice component to a good enrichment program” if the zoo could get some trees, and let the elephants knock them down.

It is one thing to place electric fencing between elephants and something they are not interested in. … It is another thing to place such electric hot-wiring between the elephants and something they like, need, and use as part of their natural behavior. Thus, rather than providing the elephants with trees to rub against and knock down as part of “an enriched environment that stimulates and elicits species-specific behavior”, the Los Angeles Zoo’s elephant management system tempts the elephants with trees that elephants naturally use to rub against and knock down, but frustrates the elephants by keeping those trees in visual and sensory range but beyond access behind electrically-charged wires.

The judge called the evidence of Dr. Joyce Poole, one of the leading experts on elephant behavior, “the most credible testimony.” Dr. Poole talked about how the elephants stand around, bobbing their heads:

Dr. Poole testified that the stereotypic behavior exhibited by the elephants in the Los Angeles Zoo is nothing like she has ever seen in wild elephants. In her almost 20 years of observing and studying elephants, she has never seen an elephant bob its head or rock back and forth in place as or as much as Billy, Tina, and Jewel do. She believes that Billy’s stereotypic behavior of head-bobbing and rocking is strong evidence that Billy is stressed, frustrated, bored, unanimated, and unhappy, and that the zoo is not meeting his needs. She testified unequivocally that the stereotypic behavior exhibited by the three elephants in the Los Angeles Zoo is not an expression of excitement upon seeing a zoo keeper or at the prospect of being fed, as some zoo employees claim. She testified that this behavior is never seen in wild elephants as an expression of excitement or happiness.

billy-elephant-2-072512… In response to the testimony of Dr. Poole, defendants submitted the testimony of Victoria Guarnett, who has been an elephant keeper as the Los Angeles Zoo for 14 years, and has served as the Senior Elephant Keeper at the Los Angeles Zoo since July 3, 2011.  … Ms. Guarnett had somewhat shocking gaps in her knowledge of elephants, and, for someone with the title Senior Elephant Keeper, had some surprising misconceptions. For example, Ms. Guarnett believes that the head-bobbing behavior of Billy and Jewel is a sign of happiness and comfort, like a dog wagging his tail. There is no evidence in the record to support such a conclusion.

… Since Billy moved into the new exhibit in November 2010, his head-bobbing increased, then decreased, and now has increased to 45% of his time. Thus, Billy is essentially head-bobbing and swaying and rocking in place nearly half of his observable life. … No wonder, as Mr. Lewis admitted, zoo employees hear zoo patrons ask what is so wrong with the zoo’s elephants.

The judge was equally scathing when Guarnett tried to explain how Billy was trained to stand on his back legs to entertain visitors.

She testified that making Billy stand up on his back two legs is not a trick or performance for the audience (although she does refer to the area where public visitors can hear her as a “stage”), but an exercise to develop his muscles in the event (for which there is no plan to have occur) that he has the opportunity to mate with a female elephant.

Frankly, this is absurd, and the court discredits this testimony. Moreover, Ms. Guarnett claims that she does not know how Billy was trained to lie down, as the keepers have him do for visitors to the Elephants of Asia exhibit. The court discredits this testimony as well. It is inconceivable that the Senior Elephant Keeper of the Los Angeles Zoo has no knowledge of the kinds of things that elephant trainers had to do to Billy and other elephants to train them to lie down on command, such using a block and tackle to pull the elephant’s legs and poking the elephant’s admittedly sensitive skin with a pole and nail, as shown in Exhibit 47.

For someone who claims to love the elephants, it is shocking that she would command or at least assist them in performing an activity that the elephants were taught to do in this way. The court also discredits Ms. Guarnett’s similarly remarkable testimony that the keepers never command Billy to stand on his back two legs or lie down, they merely “ask” him to do so.

Summing it all up, the judge concluded that “captivity is a terrible existence for any intelligent, self-aware species, which the undisputed evidence shows elephants are. To believe otherwise, as some high-ranking zoo employees appear to believe, is delusional. And the quality of life that Billy, Tina, and Jewel endure in their captivity is particularly poor.” “Captivity is a terrible existence for any intelligent, self-aware species. To believe otherwise, as some high-ranking zoo employees appear to believe, is delusional”

Judge Segal put several remedies in place, banning the use of equipment like bull hooks and electric wires. The zoo will be required to soften the ground with a rototiller where the elephants stand and walk, and to ensure that they have at least two hours of exercise every day.

He stopped short, however, of telling the zoo to give up the elephants altogether so that they could be sent to a sanctuary. The question here revolved around what constitutes “abuse” in the legal definition of the term. Judge Segal noted that the elephants are considered “property”, and examined other cases of nonhuman animals being confiscated from their owners. He said that although “the plaintiff has met his burden of proof that the Elephants of Asia exhibit of the Los Angeles Zoo is injuring the three elephants who live there, the problem is that, unlike the Penal Code section 596.5 standard for the illegality provision of Code of Civil Procedure section 536a, there is no ‘legal standard by which the alleged governmental conduct may be tested’ for the injury provision of section 536a.”

He cited cases in which a pet owner had failed to provide medical care for a wounded and desperately sick puppy; a cat hoarder was starving the 92 cats in her trailer; a case where animal services staff found a dog hoarder “standing in the midst of a canine charnel house” where some dogs were lying dead; and a case where a man was breeding mice and rats so that he could videotape them being crushed to death under the heel of a woman’s show.

The treatment of the elephants, he wrote, did not sink to this level, and he could not therefore order their release from the zoo.

By any standard, however, the judge’s decision represents a landmark in how the law views the treatment of captive animals.

A “historic cornerstone”

After reading the decision, Aaron Leider, the real estate broker who brought the suit said: “The elephants lives will be better and for the first time in history a Judge has ordered a zoo to improve its care of their animals. Most significantly are the Factual Findings, these will become the historic cornerstone of our movement to close all elephant exhibits in zoos.”

“This is a landmark decision that shows inarguably that there is every good reason to move Billy, Jewel and Tina to a sanctuary where they can live their lives in peace and dignity.”Leider originated the suit  three years ago, after a group of prominent Los Angelenos including celebrities Bob Barker, Robert Culp, Lily Tomlin and Cher asked the city council to release Billy. The city voted them down. So Culp, star of the former I-Spy TV series, joined Aaron Leider to file suit in L.A. Superior Court. Two years ago, Culp died, but the suit proceeded.

David Casselman, the attorney representing the elephants, said: “We’re very pleased that the court recognized the substandard and horrific conditions at the Los Angeles Zoo elephant exhibit. The legal questions that remain, regarding how to respond to these problems, will continue. But the public should now be well aware that the decades-long representations of excellent care and superior knowledge are extremely unfounded and the city should take a serious look at closing this exhibit with or without a further court order.”

Dr. Lori Marino, who testified from the point of view of a neuroscientist about the psychology and behavior of elephants, including their large complex brains, said: “It is groundbreaking that Judge Segal has recognized that elephants are self-aware beings with a stake in being happy. There is absolutely no doubt now that elephants are suffering in captivity. This is a landmark decision that shows inarguably that there is every good reason to move Billy, Jewel and Tina to a sanctuary where they can live their lives in peace and dignity. This ruling has finally revealed that ‘the emperor has no clothes’ and that we will no longer believe or trust the claims of the zoo industry.”

For their part, officials from the Los Angeles Zoo declined to comment. Instead, they issued a prepared statement saying: “We respectfully disagree with the court’s opinion regarding the competency and validity of our elephant program. As the people who provide the day to day care for these animals we are competent in what we do and dedicated to the well-being of our elephants.”