LA Leaders Renew Effort to Free Billy the Elephant

Photo credit: San Diego Zoo

LOS ANGELES (CN) – Billy the Asian bull elephant took center stage once again at Los Angeles City Hall on Wednesday, where animal activists and a city councilman called for a review of the elephant’s health at the Los Angeles Zoo.

Zoo officials say Billy’s exhibit is the best home for him.

Like an elephant, many supporters will remember that the same topic has played out at City Hall in previous years. Last year, Councilman Paul Koretz made the call to free Billy due to a lack of space at his exhibit.

His motion was met with cheers and jeers during a raucous public comment period, with more than 30 people speaking on both sides of the issue. Koretz’s motion called for the full-stop of the zoo’s elephant breeding program, Billy’s release to an animal sanctuary and making the LA Zoo an all-female elephant exhibit.

The committee voted to continue the topic to a later date but did request the formation of an independent study of the current exhibit by experts in the medical field.

Supporters for Billy’s release from the zoo included Cher, Lily Tomlin and many others who asked for the review of the zoo’s care of its elephants. Zoo director John Lewis said the call for a review of Billy’s health is “insulting” and that he was “overwhelmed” by the conversation that played out during the public comment period.

“The facts in this motion are incorrect,” said Lewis, adding the zoo has trained staff who care for its elephants.

The topic of Billy’s well-being has resurfaced thanks to Councilman David Ryu, whose district includes the zoo and who in October requested an independent review of “Billy’s health, the potential financial, logistical and accreditation impacts to the city or the zoo of moving Billy, the conservation efforts of the zoo and how those relate to Asian elephants.”

Ryu asked, “Ultimately, is Billy happy and healthy?” The committee will submit questions to zoo staff for a more thorough report.

Zoo supporters argued at the committee hearing that Billy receives vital care and is provided for by trained zoo staff. That was the same argument zoo officials made last year when Koretz began his campaign for Billy.

On Wednesday, zoo staff and supporters wearing green asked for Billy to stay at his current exhibit. Zoo supporters were joined by rock musician Slash.

“I grew up at the zoo for a lot of years. And supporter of the zoo for many years,” Slash said. “They have the most integrity and dedicated staff.”

Animal keeper Jill Werner with the L.A. Zoo said the elephant exhibit has been reviewed ad nauseum in the past, but if a review can prove that Billy and the other elephants are well taken care of then it would put the matter to rest.

“They need to go off facts, to finally educate those on the topic,” Werner, whose specialty at the L.A. Zoo are primates and carnivores, told Courthouse News after the meeting.

Proponents for Billy’s move to a sanctuary said they want an independent review of the elephant’s care at the zoo, which the zoo disagrees with. Singer and animal activist Cher said, “I believe in second opinions.”

A 2007 lawsuit filed by citizen Aaron Leider questioned the zoo’s leadership, naming zoo director Lewis and the city of Los Angeles as defendants. Leider claimed the zoo subjected elephants to “cruel, abusive and illegal treatment” through use of chains, drugs, bullhooks and electric shocks.

Last year, the California Supreme Court reversed a 2012 lower court order for improved conditions at the elephant’s exhibit. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John Segal ruled for the animals to be exercised regularly and for elephant handlers to stop using bullhooks and electric shocks. Segal stopped short of saying the elephant’s treatment was inhumane.

But Justice Carol Corrigan rejected the basis of Leider’s taxpayer action, that criminal mistreatment of the animals is an unlawful use of public money.

Under California law, a taxpayer action cannot be used to enforce criminal law so an injunction against the city cannot stand, the state’s highest court unanimously ruled.

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