Saturday, January 9, 2016

Meeting with John Lewis, Director of the Los Angeles Zoo

On Friday afternoon, January 8, 2015, Marcy Winograd and I met with John Lewis, the director of the Los Angeles Zoo, in his office on zoo property. Following is a summary of the zoo's position with respect to elephant captivity related issues.

First, of course, we have a basic, philosophical disagreement with Mr. Lewis regarding the concept of holding wild animals in captivity. The zoo's basic position is that as long as the animals are well-cared for, there is absolutely nothing wrong with captivity, and there are some benefits. Mr. Lewis compared the care that the elephants in his zoo receive to the care a cat or dog receives in a loving, family home.

Billy's rocking and head bobbing behavior:
Mr. Lewis stated that this behavior is not pathological and it just something that Billy does. He has exhibited this behavior since he was an infant. The zoo had a PhD researcher study Billy and his/her conclusion was that the behavior is not pathological because it stops when a keeper calls to Billy. He engages in the rocking and bobbing when he is anticipating something, such as the arrival of his keepers and/or food. They are trying to feed him on a random schedule to reduce the behavior.

They were exercising the elephants before the lawsuit and will continue to do so even if the ruling is overturned (more on the lawsuit below). For their health, the elephants need a routine to keep them moving. However, they do not have to do anything they do not want to do. Mr. Lewis claims that they cannot force an adult, bull elephant to do anything.

Rotilling the Soil
They were not rototilling the soil in the exhibit prior to the ruling from the trial court because they did not think it was necessary. They are now rototilling once a month and will continue to do so even if the ruling is overturned.

Elephants do not need large spaces to roam when they have everything they need. Elephants only cover large spaces when they are in search of resources and mates.

Billy is not alone. He has Tina and Jewel and he interacts with one of them regularly through the fence. According to Mr. Lewis, the other female does not like him and chooses not to interact. With the female that likes him, Billy talks to her and can touch her through the fence.

They are searching for a breeding partner for Billy and trying to collect his semen. The goal is to increase the North American herd of elephants (in other words the elephants held in North American zoos). According to Mr. Lewis, there are very few captive breeding partners for Billy. Females over the age of 30 are too old to breed in captivity and there are very few younger females available. They have been stimulating Billy for about one year, but, to date, he has not ejaculated so they have not been able to collect his semen to artificially inseminate a female at another zoo. Many  zoos around the country are expanding their exhibits (Mr. Lewis rattled off a list), like Los Angeles, to hold social groups of elephants so they need to breed more captive elephants. Zoos are also interested in obtaining the Ring-A-Ling elephants.

Past management of elephants in zoos:
John admitted that many mistakes were made int he past with respect to the care of elephants in zoos (concrete enclosures, chaining for long periods of time), but in his opinion all of this was done with the best of intentions. They have learned a lot about how to care for elephants and are providing the best care possible.

The reason the City appealed the trial court's ruling is due to the standing issue. They claim the trial judge exceeded his authority and the plaintiff did not have standing to bring the suit in the first place. They do not want precedent allowing tax payers to enforce criminal laws in civil court. Mr. Lewis claims that regardless of the appellate ruling, they will continue to exercise the elephants and rototill the soil, and they discontinued the use of bull hooks a long time ago.

Valuable information gained from keeping elephants in captivity:
Mr. Lewis believes that they are gaining valuable information regarding the care and management of elephants in captivity that will help elephants in the wild. Since the natural habitat for elephants is disappearing, the wild herds need to be managed in a similar way to elephants in zoos, and zoos are able to provide information and experience.

Billy is being trained to stand on his hind legs in order to mount a female.
Mr. Lewis was unaware that Tina and Jewel are forced to perform a curtsy at the end of the training demonstrations. He took a note and thanked me for the feedback. He stated that only natural behaviors and care taking routines should be exhibited at the demonstrations.

Mr. Lewis told us that there are 5 elephant keepers employed by the zoo, and 4 vets that serve the entire zoo population, including the elephants.

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