THE BATTLE FOR BILLY
The tour eventually ended, leaving me unimpressed and craving a powerful cocktail.
“So what’re you gonna write about?” Bona asked me as she packed her camera.
“The mating rituals of the Sicilian Donkey,” I replied with a bitter tone.
How “Green” is the L.A. Zoo? Well, they do their part to conserve endangered species, I’ll give them that much. For example, the Zoo has been a part of the California Condor Recovery Program for years, and has played a major role in saving this majestic species from becoming extinct. Their latest challenge: the extremely endangered Peninsular Pronghorn of Mexico, who’s population has just gone up to 250 thanks, in part, to the Zoo’s dedication. But you can read all of this in a brochure, and since I’m in the magazine business, I drove back to the West Side without a story.
No story, that is, until I began Googling the Zoo for research. It turns out that $42 million mud-pit, and the solitary elephant it intends to house, has been the subject of heated debate between various warring factions of this city for several years now. In addition to countless animal-rights activists, TV legend Robert Culp has been trying to egg on a lawsuit against the Zoo in conjunction with real estate agent Aaron Leider since ‘07. They allege the Zoo withheld medical care to their elephants, confined them in too small an area, and even used bull hooks and electric charges to control them. To top it off, this vocal celebrity activist is claiming construction for a new elephant habitat will be an epic waste of taxpayer’s dollars – especially during a time of economic despair. The California Supreme Court has denied a petition by the City to review a Court of Appeal’s decision in September of ‘09 allowing the animal welfare suit to go to trial. So despite L.A.’s evasive efforts, the gavel comes down sometime in March / April and the Shit Show will commence.
Curious about all of this, I decide to call up Mr. Leider himself to pick his brain on the lawsuit he is filing against the City, asking him, “On what legal grounds are you suing the City?”
Leider informs me, “There is a law that states that the City cannot keep acquiring property that it cannot maintain. The elephants are considered property, and the death-rate clearly shows that these animals do not fare well in captivity. It costs approximately $156,000 annually to care for a single elephant in captivity. This is on top of the $42 million to expand the exhibit. As taxpayers we’re paying for all of this and will continue to pay for the suffering of these animals. It’s our right to do this.”
It turns out, us Angelinos are “only” coughing up $36 million as $5 million of the project’s budget was made in private donations. But still, that ain’t exactly pocket change. And the question remains: is any amount of money able to prevent these animals from dying prematurely? I ask Leider, “Fifteen elephants have died there since 1968, correct?”
“They only claim twelve because three of them were leased to the Zoo, so they don’t technically consider them their property. You have to understand, this new exhibit was approved in ’06 when the Zoo lied to the City Council about these deaths, covering up all the facts, saying the elephants were perfectly healthy. Seven years ago, there were four elephants: Tara, Gita, Ruby and Billy. Tara died in ’04 at the age of 39 (the average life expectancy of their species in captivity is in their 40’s, while in the wild they can live up to 70). Two years later, 48-year-old Gita dropped dead – literally – in her outdoor paddock. Believing 47 year-old Ruby was on her last legs, the Zoo preemptively “retired” her to the Performing Animal Welfare Society sanctuary in San Andreas to avoid another death on their hands with this multi-million dollar project in the works. The sanctuary gives them access to 100 acres of land and even a Jacuzzi for the more arthritic members of their family. It’s the most humane alternative for them right now.”
“So this thing is set to go to trial soon, right?”
“Yes. We won in the Appellate Court and the City desperately doesn’t want to go to trial with this. Just in the preliminary hearing, the stuff that leaked about the Zoo they were freaked by. The City went to the Supreme Court to try and overturn this, and the Supreme Court shut them down. So just the fact that the City did that is a sign of desperation. If they have nothing to hide, then they should have nothing to worry about.”
“What kinds of things are they concerned about?”
“For example, out of all that grand construction going on over there, you have to realize a bulk of that is for people and not the elephants. These special trees that they’re going to be planting that will make it look so lush and natural? They’re going to be electrified because the elephants will knock them down. They will be put there for our aesthetic pleasure.”
“So if you win this lawsuit, what happens to the construction? Does it stop cold-turkey?”
“Not at all. The new exhibit is there to stay. What we’re proposing is to release Billy to a sanctuary where he has freedom to roam. The Zoo can then place half a dozen smaller species which coexist into that space and let them have more freedom.”
“Sounds reasonable. So what can people do to support your cause?”
“The people of Los Angeles should rally together and ask Mayor Villaraigosa to keep his promise that he made before he was elected to place Billy in a sanctuary. He stated publicly and repeatedly that elephants do not belong in zoos and should be sent to larger preserves.”
A little web surfing reveals that the Mayor did, in fact, endorse Billy’s freedom a couple years back. May 13th, 2005: “I have believed for some time that a zoo is not an appropriate place for an animal as large as an elephant. I think we need to move the elephants out.” April 12th, 2006: “I’ve said for a long time that I think we need to take the elephants our of our zoos. I believe that.” April 19th, 2006: “I don’t think zoos are big enough to house elephants. Nature preserves are more appropriate places for elephants.”
I have no choice but to call the Mayor’s office and demand some sort of explanation. Why would Villaraigosa use Billy as a campaign gimmick, only to change his mind once he was elected? I get as far as Press Aide Rachel Kruer, who encourages me to send her an e-mail that she will forward to the “proper channels.” Days go by without any response, so I follow-up with the Press Aide over the phone and she tells me, “I’m looking into it, but we’re not sure yet if this is something we want to officially comment on or not.”
If the Mayor is too scared to make a statement, surely the PAWS sanctuary will have something to say about this, right? Kind of.
“If the Zoo should decide not to keep Billy, and if we make critical statements about them publicly, then it might cause problems. I don’t think it would be wise for us,” president and founder Pat Derby told me over the phone.
“What is the conflict of interest here? Can you at least tell me if you endorse their handling of Billy?”
“We’ve complained for many years. There are some improvements with their new exhibit, but we’re opposed to bringing in more elephants with Billy. It’s an incredible amount of money to spend for such a small space.”
“What kind of trouble can the L.A. Zoo cause for your sanctuary?”
“If we’re openly antagonistic, I fear that if the Zoo ever did decide to send Billy somewhere else, they would not consider sending him here. We would happily take Billy if that situation ever arose.”
“Well if we can’t discuss the present, how about the past? They sent Ruby to you a couple years back. Is she still alive?”
“Ruby is alive and doing wonderful. She has bonded with three other African Elephants.”
“Why did they send her to you?”
“They sent her to the Knoxville Zoo at first, and she did not do well there at all. They had to bring her back, and they had no other options, so they sent her to us. And we’re totally thrilled that they did.”
“Too bad they can’t do the same for Billy.”
“I think there is an incredible amount of arrogance. If Billy has so many neurotic behaviors, and they’ve had him since he was four, they are obviously not doing something right. There are no guarantees that they will, even with a different space.”