California Court Delivers Upset to Elephant Advocates

LOS ANGELES (CN) — The California Supreme Court on Thursday reversed a ruling that ordered improved conditions for elephants at Los Angeles Zoo, a setback for animal advocates who say the intelligent animals are being mistreated.

In August 2007, Los Angeles resident Aaron Leider sued L.A. Zoo Director John Lewis and the City of Los Angeles, challenging the expansion of the zoo’s elephant exhibit. Leider claimed the zoo subjected elephants to “cruel, abusive and illegal treatment” through use of chains, drugs, bullhooks and electric shocks.

In 2012, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge John Segal stopped short of ruling that the zoo’s treatment was inhumane but said officials need to take better care of the elephants. He ordered the city to stop using bullhooks or electric shocks and to exercise the elephants regularly.

A divided appeals court affirmed.

City leaders have recently highlighted conditions at the zoo, with Councilman Paul Koretz calling for the zoo to move an Asian elephant named Billy to a sanctuary. Zoo officials objected, saying that keepers are looking after the elephants. In his motion, Koretz relied on Segal’s findings in the bench trial.

Leider’s complaint said the keeper had shocked Billy and that the animal was bobbing his head – an indication, according to advocates, that he is stressed and isolated.

But the California Supreme Court on Thursday reversed the appeals court.

Justice Carol Corrigan rejected the theory in Leider’s taxpayer action: that the alleged criminal mistreatment of the animals was an unlawful use of public money.

Under California law, a taxpayer action cannot be used to enforce violations of criminal law, so an injunction against the city cannot stand, according to the unanimous court.

“Here, the trial court found that the city and its zoo director had violated penal code statutes proscribing animal abuse, but it provided them neither the right to a jury trial nor the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” Corrigan wrote. “Moreover, Leider was permitted to exercise the discretion reserved for the district attorney with regard to enforcement of the criminal law. For these reasons, the Court of Appeal’s judgment cannot stand.”

Leider’s attorney David Casselman called the ruling “extremely disappointing,” and said evidence showed that elephants had died prematurely because of conditions at the zoo.

“Having gone all the way through trial and proving the need for injunctive relief under recognized statutory authority, it was very surprising that the Supreme Court would change the rules and effectively ignore the statutory scheme that has existed for decades,” Casselman said in an interview.

He said he hoped for a retrial before a jury.

“If it’s possible, I intend to pursue this through the Legislature, or anywhere else, to protect these elephants who are suffering dying prematurely,” he said.

The zoo praised the high court’s decision.

“Today’s California Supreme Court decision validates what Angelenos already know: the LA Zoo and its staff provides the highest level of care for our elephants and all our animals,” LA Zoo spokeswoman April Spurlock wrote in an email. “Our elephants live in one of the best – and largest – elephant habitats in North America at a state-of-the-art facility that has tremendous resources, a dedicated staff, and provides top-quality health care.”

The city did not respond to a request for comment.

The court remanded the case for further proceedings.

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