Friday, January 9, 2009

Where Should Billy Live?

This is Billy. He is a 23 old Asian Elephant that lives at the Los Angeles Zoo. He has lived there for the past 20 years and since May 2007, when his companion Ruby was relocated to the Performing Animal Welfare Society's 75-acre sanctuary in San Andreas, CA, he has lived alone. And the problem is?

Elephants live in herds and scientists believe elephants have emotions, much like humans. Elephants have a strong sense of family and death and if you have ever watched Animal Planet, you know that when an elephant dies in the wild, the herd will stay with the body for several days. Researchers believe these elephants stay to mourn the dead. Elephants form friendships that last a lifetime and they need companionship. They cannot live alone because it is not natural to them.

That being said, the L.A. city council is currently debating on whether or not to have Billy continue living at the L.A. Zoo or be sent to a sanctuary. The L.A. Zoo is currently building Pachyderm Forest, a state-of-the-art elephant habitat.that will span nearly six acres, which is almost seven times the size of their current elephant space. This exhibit will be one of the largest of any urban zoo in the U.S. And the problem is?

Construction on the Pachyderm Forest has been halted over concerns not just over cost (an estimated $42 million), but also Billy's well-being. Councilman Tony Cardenas conceived the motion to stop construction of the exhibit and move Billy to a sanctuary.

Hmm, if you are from Chicago this story may sound familiar to you. At Mom's zoo, there are no elephants. There were elephants at one time, with the last elephant, Tatima, dying in transit to a zoo in Utah in 2005. The death of this last elephant (part of an original herd of 3, including Peaches and Wankie) drove people from PETA to protest outside the elephant habitat. And then the city council got involved. In the end, the city council passed an ordinance that in order to keep elephants in captivity, an institution must have 5 acres per elephant. 5 acres may not seem like a lot, but Mom's zoo is only 35 acres total. So in order to exhibit elephants, Mom's zoo would have to get rid of a lot of its animals. That is just wrong!

As all of you know, I have never been to a zoo. I cannot go to the zoo because only service dogs are allowed at zoos. I know, I know. I provide a service to Mom and Dad just by being me and also by having this blog, but I still cannot get in. Mom tells me all about the zoo every time she comes home from on Fridays. She says that it is a great place for everyone and a place not just for learning about animals, but also about learning about conservation.

Since the late 1980's, the L.A. Zoo has participated in the Elephant Species Survival Plan (SSP), a program that links zoo nationwide in breeding programs to ensure that elephants not only survive but thrive. Most AZA accredited zoo participate in SSP's for several species and what most people do not realize is that there are many animals that do not survive in the wild and if it weren't for zoo programs, these animals would be extinct.

Elephants are a vital part of the L.A. Zoo’s animal collection, not only as a valuable educational resource, but as a flagship species for promoting wildlife conservation. In addition, Pachyderm Forest will not simply be an elephant exhibit, but according to the Zoo's website a "visitor experience that will address
the conservation challenges elephants face in Thailand, Cambodia, India, and China. We are concerned that effective conservation programs take place in these native habitats." Additionally, the zoo has spent $53,000 to conservation biologists in Southeast Asia and their hope is that Pachyderm Forest will encourage visitors to contribute to elephant conservation programs as well.

So what can you do to help? That's a great question, but not one that I have a good answer for. The most important thing to do is educate yourself about the plight of elephants, learn about the great conservation work that zoos do, realize that zoos are places where education is a primary objective, and most of all understand that zoos do care about their animals. Most zookeepers care more about animals than they do about themselves and would rather see something happen to them then to the animals under their care. Zoo animals serve as ambassadors for what once was and what could be again.

The L.A Times is currently taking a poll on whether Billy should continue to live at the zoo or be sent to a sanctuary. Please cast your vote and read what people have to say about this delicate issue at

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