A civil lawsuit was brought against the Los Angeles (LA) Zoo for providing abhorrent living conditions and abusive training tactics towards three elephants kept in their "Elephants of Asia" exhibit. The 56-page finding of California Superior Court Judge John Segal puts zoos on notice that animal abuse as a revenue stream will incur more expense than it will profit. The Judge declared, "Captivity is a terrible existence for any intelligent, self-aware species. To believe otherwise, as some high-ranking zoo employees appear to believe, is delusional."
The LA Zoo has three elephants confined to 2.6 acres of concrete-like dirt. An Asian elephant's natural territorial range is about 52 square kilometers. To put this into perspective, one square kilometer equals 247 acres. To attest to the substandard living conditions, Dr. Curtis Eng, the zoo's chief veterinarian, testified that any elephant held in captivity suffers physical complications from standing on hard soil in a confined space. In the wild, elephants roam over varied terrains to include soft soil and grassy areas. He further stated that rototilling their space would lessen physical deterioration and while zookeepers claim to do this, it has never once been observed.
Elephants are herbivores. Their diet consists of trees, shrubs, plants, and grass. The zoo spent $42 million in landscaping to make their exhibit visually appealing to onlookers. However, what people consider landscaping, elephants see as a food source. To prevent the elephants from consuming the landscaping, senior zookeepers decided to electrocute the animals anytime they went near it. If the animals remained defiant, bullhooks and whips were used. This manner of action is equivalent to standing in the middle of a buffet and ordered not to eat, on the threat of great pain – 24 hours a day.
The zoo is in direct violation of California Penal Code 596.5, which states it is illegal to use electricity or physical punishment that breaks the skin as a means of control. It also states that it is illegal to deprive an elephant of food or water resources. If the LA Zoo finds the natural lifestyle of the elephants so inconvenient, perhaps it should not have them. After all, permits are issued to zoos under the presumption of preserving wildlife. If the goal is preservation, how is electrocuting an elephant, for doing what comes naturally, protecting the integrity of the species?
Some of the most damaging testimony against the zoo came from Dr. Joyce Poole, a leading expert in elephant behavior. She testified that in her 20 years of research she has never seen any elephant in the wild as distressed as those found in the LA Zoo. She stated that the elephants display profound stress, frustration, and boredom. Their lack of animation and uncharacteristic behavior indicates a deep seeded unhappiness, which people would identify with as chronic depression.
The elephant is the largest land mammal in existence, hence their name ele (meaning arch) and phant (meaning huge). They average 2000-5500 kg. (4,500-12,000 lbs.), are 5.5-6.5 m. (18-21 ft.) long, and have a shoulder height measuring 3.2 m. (10 ft.). They spend 90 percent of their time grazing, 6 percent of their time traveling long distances, and only 1 percent of their time resting. Conversely, in a zoo environment they are allotted specific mealtimes, have no ground to roam, and are expected to spend most of their day in a restful state, all of which are completely counter to the animal's natural state of being. In addition, the zoo only keeps three elephants when a normal herd structure is anywhere from 12 to 20 members.
While Judge Segal did not outright mandate the removal of the elephants from the zoo, he did mandate immediate corrective measures to avoid such a ruling. He further suggested that it would be wise for the zoo to hand over the elephants to an appropriately suited habitat voluntarily, as the cost of all the mandated modifications will likely be prohibitive.
Zoos should have an expectation to provide the highest standards of animal care. However, the contrary is most often found, making zoos tantamount to a permanently grounded circus facility. The exhibits created, are designed to enhance the viewer's experience rather than enriching the lives of the animals within their care. Each time a person purchases a ticket, they support this kind of animal maltreatment. It begs the question, what does supporting such facilities teach future generations about the applied value people have towards the animals of the world?