My first visit to the Elephants of Asia Exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo after learning the truth about elephants in captivity was on June 9, 2015. Although I hate giving my money to entities that exploit animals for profit, I wanted to see the elephants for myself. What I saw made me cry.
I arrived at the exhibit in time for the daily "Training Demonstration" at 11:00 am. The two females, Tina and Jewel, were in the "enrichment yard" and were led through some grooming exercises and forced to perform tricks for the crowd by two staff members using protected contact (animal management through a fence). They checked the elephants' feet and mouths, and proceeded to brush the dirt from their backs while explaining that elephants purposefully dust themselves to protect their skin from sunburn (so why remove it??) Then, the elephants were provided "mental stimulation" which consisted of being told to pick up sticks, place them in a different place, and move a tire around. At the end of the pathetic demonstration, the elephants were commanded to take a bow - which looked very much like a circus trick. As soon as the session was over, Tina and Jewel left the yard as quickly as they could to the relative privacy at the far back of the exhibit. During my observation, they showed no interest in the "toys" in the enrichment yard and no affection for the staff members.
I spoke with one of the "education specialists" (a young female staff member) that was circulating among the visitors to answer questions about the elephants. She informed me that Tina and Jewel are both in their fifties and have been at the zoo for about 5 years. When the new exhibit opened in 2010, Tina and Jewel were brought to the Los Angeles Zoo from the San Diego Zoo. This staff member claimed that the two females were acquired from a private collection by the San Diego Zoo and they were not captured from the wild. It did not take much time on the internet to learn that Tina and Jewel are victims of the circus industry. Most likely they were both born in the wild, like Billy.
I walked around the entire exhibit and read all of the information. I observed Billy in his lonely corner swaying and bobbing his head. When I asked one of the staff members why he was kept separate from Tina and Jewel, I was told that male elephants are solitary in the wild, so Billy is kept by himself. I was also told that his head bobbing is an "anticipatory behavior". The zoo wants people to believe that Billy is eagerly awaiting his treats (part of the zoo's enforced exercise regime to comply with the court's order to exercise the elephants at least 2 hours per day).
I returned to see Billy on July 21, 2015 and all of the lies I heard on my first visit were repeated. In fact, I observed a group of school children watching Billy, and one of the zoo staff members leading the tour actually said, "Do you see him bobbing his head? That means he is really happy." I was also told that the zoo is actively looking for about three females to bring to the zoo in order to breed Billy (Tina and Jewel are too old). Not only would a breeding program compound the space problem at the zoo, it would also produce more captive, miserable elephants.
Based on my research, the claims made by the staff members of the Los Angeles Zoo could not be further from the truth. First, researchers have proven that male elephants live within complex elephant communities and form lasting bonds with other elephants, male and female. Older males also serve as mentors for young bulls. (See my blog dated 12/31/15). Furthermore, according to Dr. Joyce Poole, based on years of elephant research and her own observations of Billy, his head bobbing behavior means he is stressed, frustrated, bored, and unhappy (elephantvoices.org). In short, Billy is losing his mind due to the years of solitary confinement.
The Los Angeles Zoo is presenting propaganda and lies in an attempt to justify the exploitation of these magnificent elephants for entertainment and profit. How long must they suffer? Billy, Tina, and Jewel have spent their lives in forced servitude and it is time to say enough. NO MORE. It is time to release Billy, Tina, and Jewel to Sanctuary. For as long as we stand by and allow this to continue, they will remain three of the many elephants languishing in zoos and circuses "marking time before the public's eyes until death releases them." (Kane, 2009, p. 96).
"The only good cage is an empty cage." - Lawrence Anthony, The Elephant Whisperer