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Celebrities argue over fate of L.A. Zoo elephant

LOS ANGELES — Single-name music superstars found themselves on opposite sides at City Hall last week, as singer Cher and Guns ‘N Roses guitarist Slash voiced differing views on the future of Billy the elephant’s stay at the Los Angeles Zoo.

The City Council’s Arts, Entertainment, Parks and River Committee was considering a proposal to have Billy moved to a sanctuary over what City Councilman Paul Koretz calls an “unnatural” and “restricted” habitat for the animal, but opted not to make any major decisions and kept the item in the committee.

The committee asked city staff to report on the feasibility of forming a three-person independent working group of veterinarians not connected to the zoo to offer an opinion on Billy’s health and habitat, and that the group conduct a comprehensive report on items related to elephants in captivity in general and issues connected to Billy’s captivity.

“Billy, I’ve watched over the years, all he does is sway back and forth and it means that he is very distressed,” Cher told the committee. “His feet problems are getting worse. I don’t know if you know this, but elephants die from feet problems.”

Billy has lived at the zoo for most of his 30 years and has long been the subject of protests against his captivity, while the zoo has defended its care of Billy as one that exceeds the standards set out by California Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Actress Lily Tomlin also spoke at the meeting and was among several dozen people who voiced their opinion on Billy to the committee.

“The zoo vets are not totally reliable. We have found that to be true over the years,” Tomlin told City News Service after she gave similar comments to the committee. “We can’t get the records we need, we can’t get any kind of response as to his real health, his real issue. And we feel that he is in pretty dire circumstances.”

Tomlin also said “we’re not trying to take the other elephants out. We’re just trying to save Billy’s life.”

Cher — who also appeared with Tomlin at a City Council meeting about Billy in 2009 — spoke in favor of conducting an independent analysis of Billy’s health, and shared that her mother had been diagnosed with a deadly form of heart disease, but went to get a second opinion from a different doctor who had access to a new drug.

Thank God my mother is getting the drug and my mother is going to be well. So I believe in second opinions,” Cher said.

Slash, whose real name is Saul Hudson, is a trustee with the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association, the zoo’s fundraising arm. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member said many people are “woefully out of touch with the facts, and I think the facts are what are important here, and you should support the facts and the Los Angeles Zoo’s elephant program and vote down this motion.”

Zoo Director John Lewis defended the zoo’s habitat and said Billy was healthy.

“Billy is not suffering. He’s in good health,” he said.

The committee’s move echoed a request by Councilman David Ryu, who is on the committee and whose Fourth District includes the zoo. Ryu has been on the council since 2015 and in comments at the meeting and in a letter to the committee did not take a stance on Billy’s status but requested more information, including an examination by an independent veterinarian.

Because males and females living in captivity must be kept separate, none of the zoo’s elephants can use the exhibit’s entire space and Billy does not get the daily exercise he needs to be both physically and psychologically healthy, according to Koretz.

“For many years, Billy has lived in an area completely unnatural for an animal of his size and of his stature,” Koretz said when he introduced the motion last year.

“It’s sad and wrong to see any animal, living in captivity, in social isolation, restricted in movement and physical activity. In fact, he has long been displaying stereotypic behavior, such as repetitive head bobbing, which goes on for extended periods of time.

The motion the committee is considering also wants the zoo to cancel current or future elephant breeding activities or programs because the efforts to collect genetic material from Billy is invasive.

Koretz, who is not on the committee but sat in during the session, said he believed moving Billy to a sanctuary and turning the elephant exhibit into an all-female habitat would be a win-win because all the elephants at the zoo would be able to use the full habitat space and Billy could move to a better environment. He also said he supported the outside health assessment.

“I think this assessment could update our knowledge base help us resolve this matter, so we should move on it expeditiously. And I think there is sufficient questions about Billy’s mental and physical health to justify that,” Koretz said.

The California Supreme Court last year overturned a 2012 court order that prohibited the Los Angeles Zoo from using bullhooks and electric shocks on its elephants.

The unanimous decision was made on technical grounds and found that the lawsuit filed by real estate agent Aaron Leider and late actor Robert Culp against the zoo used the wrong legal actions by making arguments in civil court that belong in criminal court.

The injunction also required the zoo to exercise the elephants at least two hours a day, and that the soil be rototilled to lessen the impact on their legs.

The civil Leider v. Lewis case argued the zoo was violating the animal cruelty criminal code, but the court ruled that only a prosecutor could make the argument, and it must be a through a jury trial with a higher burden of criminal proof.

The motion would also instruct the zoo to report on their compliance with all provisions of the Leider v. Lewis decision irrespective of the legal status of the case, and to manage the Elephants of Asia exhibit as an open corral environment moving forward while “making fuller real-time use of the available acreage primarily for cows that have suffered abuse in previous living situations.”

 

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