Billy is an almost 30-year-old Asian elephant and the only male of the three currently at the Los Angeles Zoo, where he lives in isolation, bobbing his head, rocking and swaying. His keepers claim that this means he is happy, but to visitors, it seems Billy is depressed. And experts agree that these are sure signs of psychological distress common among zoo elephants.
Life in Captivity is No Life at All
Born in 1985, Billy was captured by the Malaysian game department and taken away from his homeland in a trade with the L.A. Zoo. From the time he arrived in 1989 until 1994, he was regularly chained overnight indoors and “trained” with electric shock as documented by undercover footage from Last Chance for Animals (LCA).
During this time, young Billy was separated from the three older resident females who were housed at night in a barn with a concrete floor, causing them to develop arthritis and foot problems, also common among zoo elephants. After the deaths of Tara in 2004 and Gita in 2006 due to neglect, the plight of the L.A. Zoo’s elephants came to light. In Defense of Animals (IDA) and other groups pushed to send the remaining Ruby and Billy to one of two elephant sanctuaries in the United States. Ruby went to ARK 2000, a 2,300-acre sanctuary in Northern California, where she thrived until her death at 50 in 2011.
Despite efforts by animal activists and several celebrities, including a combined $1.5 million offer from Bob Barker, Lily Tomlin and Cher, to have him transferred there, poor Billy was left behind as the lone elephant at the L.A. Zoo.
Billy Alone Again
In 2007, a lawsuit, filed by attorney David Casselman on behalf of (the late) actor Robert Culp and real estate broker Aaron Leider, sought to close the zoo’s elephant exhibit, but by 2010, Elephants of Asia, a new six-acre enclosure, was already complete. Billy’s 2.3 acres were an improvement over his previous pen which was “the size of a small bowling alley,” though he was still kept apart from the two new females because in his state of “sexual frustration,” it was feared he might hurt them.
When the case finally culminated in 2012, Judge John L. Segal wrote, “All is not well at the Los Angeles Zoo … the elephants are not healthy, happy or thriving.”
Although the judge also expressed concern about the trees, electrified to prevent Billy from rubbing against them, something elephants like and need to do, overall, he would not rule that the L.A. Zoo’s treatment of its elephants constituted abuse. So, Billy had to stay.
Why is the L.A. Zoo Insistent on Keeping Billy?
With declining numbers of zoo elephants, females not reproducing and males suffering from low libido or sperm count, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) is worried that they would someday have no more animals to show.
In 2010, it was discovered that sperm obtained by masturbating tranquilized elephants in Africa could then be cryogenically frozen and injected into females here. The only problem with “Operation Frozen Dumbo” was that it would take 22 months of gestation time before they could know whether it was successful.
As a backup plan, the AZA began collecting sperm from all North American member zoos’ elephants not already in the gene pool, of which there were only three. One of them was Billy.
How You Can Join the Cause to Send Billy to a Sanctuary
Unfortunately, Billy may spend however many remaining years he has left at the L.A. Zoo, but all hope is not lost. At least five North American cities have already sent their elephants to sanctuaries, with the Bronx Zoo pledging to close its exhibit. With countless activists and even celebrities willing to cover the expenses necessary to move Billy, it seems outrageous that the L.A. Zoo continues to keep him captive.
Billy, like all elephants, deserve to lead the natural lives they were born to live; however, since Billy has been robbed of this, the least we can do is to provide him with the most freedom possible.