WHERE THE ELEPHANTS ROAM: 
How A Lone Journalist Stumbled Into the 
Middle of a Heated Political Battle by Marco Mannone

/


THE ELEPHANT 
IN THE ROOM

Of course, the Zoo has claimed to have learned from their mistakes, and the new Pachyderm Forest is supposed to be a splashy monument to their newfound wisdom – like suddenly realizing that keeping a Sperm Whale in a fish-bowl might not be such a good idea, after all. The Zoo touts it as a groundbreaking achievement while the critics say the new 3.6-acre paddock will be inhumane. Why the discrepancy? Well, for one thing, the average free elephant wanders anywhere from 10 to 50 miles a day in the open. Confined to 3.6 acres, no matter how pretty it is, might not be enough to maintain their mental health.

Yes, it turns out animals – like people – go a little Joaquin Phoenix if they are cooped-up in small spaces for long periods of time. “Zoochosis” is defined as such: zoo animals exhibiting signs of extreme depression and related psychological conditions as they struggle with the confines of their captivity. According to critics, Billy’s frequent head bobbing is an indication that he’s losing his bowling ball-sized marbles – as this obsessive behavior has never been recorded in the wild. The Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association (GLAZA) claims it’s a “comforting or thumb-sucking behavior.” Accordingly, if Billy were to use his trunk to pour gasoline over himself and light a match, the Zoo would probably claim he was “chilly and wanted to get cozier”.

These aren’t Sesame Street allegations by any means, so it’s time to hear the Zoo’s perspective on all of this. I get their PR man Jason Jacobs on the phone, who berates me, “I just don’t understand how you came to the Zoo to write up an environmental story, and now all of a sudden you’re asking about our elephants. How does that happen?”

“Look, man. I stumbled into this thing by pure accident.”

“This wouldn’t be the first time the activists have sent a reporter out to us to do a hatchet-job on what we do.”

“I’m not an activist. I’m a journalist. To be perfectly honest, I don’t care to endorse either side. It’s my job to take a story apart and examine the pieces.”

Jason sighs heavily, “Do you know how many people are protesting this new exhibit? Twenty at the most. Do you know how many people visit the Zoo every year? Over one million. The people who are making this an issue represent a small minority.”

“So why do they try to make this an issue?”

“They are making an issue out of things that have happened in the past and half-truths.”

“Half truths? What’s in it for them, financially or otherwise, to make up these allegations?”

“They’re animal-rights activists. They don’t… they just don’t believe in elephants… or that any zoo should have elephants.”

“So they’re anti-elephant?”

“They just don’t understand that our elephants are treated very differently today than they were 20 years ago. We don’t bring them inside at night any more and chain them up. That hasn’t happened since 1993.”

“So what’s their problem? Why don’t they just back off?”

“Animal-rights activists will never be happy. They will get celebrities and stage press conferences at the Zoo or in front of City Hall because they want to attract media attention. And if you get media attention in Los Angeles, you have it across the world. Our animals receive excellent care, and our new Pachyderm Forest will be larger than San Diego’s African Elephant exhibit. We have the San Diego Zoo’s support on this. I mean, what are Los Angelenos supposed to do? Drive hundreds of miles north to the PAWS sanctuary and spend $200 a person to see the elephants? They don’t even let children under 13 go there.”

“So why did you guys send an elephant to them in ‘06?”

“That was our African Elephant, she was an older female, and we felt the sanctuary would be best for her. Also, we wanted to focus on Asian Elephants and PAWS had a herd of African Elephants, so we thought that would be a good fit.”

“Is it basically a nursing home for old elephants?”

“There is a need for sanctuaries. They’re for animals who don’t have options. But if all elephants were sent there, how is the average family supposed to show their children these magnificent animals? Can you imagine a world in which the only way to see an elephant is in a book or on TV?”

“That’s a compelling point.”

But the question remains: is our own convenience worth the suffering of any animal? The centerpiece for the Zoo / City’s argument is that the children of Los Angeles “deserve” to see these animals in person. More and more, I am beginning to believe that seeing an elephant is not a right, but a privilege. A privilege that we should most likely earn.

Jason concludes our conversation by saying, “Look, it’s my day off and I need to cook up some ribs. I would be more than happy to talk to you about this more in person. If you would like to go down with me to San Diego and see their African Elephant exhibit, I think you will realize what we’re doing here is special. We’re not hiding anything. We take our mission very seriously.”

There is something to be said for an animal-lover who eats ribs. It would seem logical that those who love and care for animals should be vegetarians, but who am I to argue that some animals deserve to be protected from poaching while others deserve to be sliding through our colons? Jason encouraged me to contact Councilmember of the 4th District, Tom LaBonge. The 4th District has jurisdiction over the Zoo, and LaBonge would be a good person to speak with on the City’s side. Instead, I get one of his “representatives” on the phone.

“So Jason gave me the Zoo’s perspective on this situation, and with the impending lawsuit coming up, I wanted to get the City’s take on this.”

“Uh, can you be any more specific?”

“The people who are making these allegations, what do you think they’re angle is? What are they trying to get out of this?”

“Um, I don’t mean to be evasive, but I feel like you should ask them that question?”

“Well, is there anything else the City would like people to know? Anything the City would like to clear up?”

“Um… I don’t know what is unclear. I don’t really know what you’re asking.”

“The allegations are false. The case is unfounded. So there is no issue as far as the City is concerned, correct?”

“No, we’re not saying that. We’re saying we have confidence in the City attorney’s office to do a good job. Councilman LaBonge supports the Zoo wholeheartedly and has since he was elected in 2001, and this case is no exception to his staunch support of the Zoo.”

“Staunch support despite the allegations that the Zoo’s only elephant is exhibiting signs of severe stress and mental agitation due to his captivity?”

“The Zookeepers, the people who deal with this elephant on a daily basis, assure us this is just the elephant’s way of anticipating being in contact with them.”

“So his constant head bobbing is just good-natured, social body language?”

“Uh… the bottom-line here is, the people that care for Billy every day, they know him very, very well. They have a very special relationship with him.”


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