LA Progressive

What’s New in this Zoo? Elephant Guardians of Los Angeles


At a time when many zoos are closing or have closed their captive elephant exhibits, the Los Angeles Zoo is looking to cram more elephants into a tight few acres. Never mind that Chicago, San Francisco, Detroit, and New York’s Central Park are saying let elephants be elephants and live in their natural habitat, or something close to it, like a sanctuary offering peace, dignity, security—the City of Los Angeles is intent on breeding more elephants in captivity.

Not so fast.

Enter our Elephant Guardians of Los Angeles to lobby 15 LA City Council members to budget (budget hearings are around the corner) the release of the zoo’s three captive elephants—Billy, Tina, and Jewel—to a sanctuary with over 1,000 acres to roam and terminate its captive breeding program that to date has been unsuccessful. Despite zoo efforts (details would constitute TMI), Billy, the lone male elephant, won’t produce his sperm for zoo officials to inseminate a female elephant in another zoo to either breed more captive elephants at the distant zoo or bring a few more back to Los Angeles.

What’s a zoo to do?

Acknowledge that elephants in captivity live isolated lives in unnaturally confined spaces, and call the whole thing off. After all, elephants in the wild walk from 50 to 100 miles a day and bond with extended familial and social networks. Even male elephants, once thought to be life-long loners, are reported to seek the company of other male elephants in between mating escapades.

Not so at the LA Zoo.

Following a $42 million taxpayer expansion, Billy, Tina, and Jewel are said to have approximately two to three acres to themselves, all the while surrounded by clicking electrified fences and trees (lest they devour the foliage in a few chomps), with Billy—taken as a baby from his herd in Malaysia and acquired by the LA Zoo in the 1980s—living a life of virtual isolation, bobbing his head and swaying, while daily shows feature Tina and Jewel curtseying, circus-style, for the crowd.

If we want to protect elephants in their natural habitat, we shouldn’t build prisons for them in urban centers but instead donate to elephant sanctuaries

Zoo officials are afraid Billy, who is in musth—a high state of sexual arousal—might inadvertently hurt the female once-circus elephants Tina and Jewel, so Billy is pretty much on his own, separated from the ladies who are past reproductive age.

Zoo enthusiasts claim we must breed captive elephants to ensure the survival of the species in the wild. Nonsense. The intention here is to breed elephants for zoos, not for the wild in Africa or Asia. Plus, promoting captivity as the answer to endangerment runs the risk of making people complacent because, hey, didn’t we fix that problem?

Nope—I never got that memo.

If we want to protect elephants in their natural habitat, we shouldn’t build prisons for them in urban centers but instead donate to elephant sanctuaries like PAWS in Northern California or LA attorney David Casselman’s Cambodian Wildlife Sanctuary, and work to strengthen laws and international agreements prohibiting the sale and importation of ivory.

What else? Organize. Join me for our first …

Elephant Guardians of Los Angeles Meet Up
Sat., Jan. 16, 11 am
Panera Bread, 4720 Lincoln Blvd., Marina del Rey (free parking)
Please RSVP here.

Also, you can sign Elephant Guardians of Los Angeles Co-Chair Kiersten Cluster’s petition to end elephant captivity at the LA Zoo.

Finally, please write the LA City Council and Mayor to encourage them to:

  1. Release the three elephants to a spacious sanctuary.
  2. Terminate its captive breeding program.
  3. Adopt an elephant sanctuary to support.

Here are email addresses for the Council and Mayor Garcetti:

Photo: Kiersten Cluster

Naysayers may argue—we tried this back in 2009 when the LA City Council voted unanimously to green light the $42 million expansion of the elephant exhibit, despite vocal opposition from In Defense of Animals, celebrities like Cher, and attorney David Casselman, who together with real estate agent Aaron Lieder sued the City of Los Angeles, arguing taxpayer waste and animal cruelty. If the LA City Council didn’t listen then, why would they listen now?

Because 13 of the 15 city council members are new faces; because the staunchest supporter of keeping elephants in captivity—Councilman Tom LaBonge—was voted out of office, kicked to the curb last year when his district (zoo territory: Los Feliz, also Hollywood and Hancock Park, etc.) elected progressive David Ryu in his place; because the film Blackfish was made, raising everyone’s awareness about the emotional and physical price of holding large sentient beings in captivity; and because we can now reach out strategically to GLAZA donors (Wasserman, Ahmanson, Burns, Pepsico foundations) who raise millions of dollars for the LA Zoo, and organized labor, which may have benefitted from the expansion project but now should have no stake in this controversy.

And because the space for the elephants could be used to transform their large barn into an IMAX-type theater with three-dimensional images of elephants in Africa and Asia roaming the wild with their herd, foraging for food, converging on grave sites to mourn their dead with real tears, then almost—not quite—becoming victims of the ivory trade, which we see in living bloody color as nation states clamp down on the sale and importation of ivory. Theater visitors might feel the floor vibrate with the sounds—up to 70—of elephants communicating in their own language of grunts, cries, rumbles, and trumpets.

We can do this—we can make like elephants and trumpet this.

To learn more about our campaign and volunteer, visit and email

It will take an urban village to free an elephant.

Marcy Winograd