Environment & Science

Battle brews over where to keep LA Zoo's Billy the elephant

File: Children watch the Indian elephant Billy, on public display at the Los Angeles Zoo, on December 13, 2006.
File: Children watch the Indian elephant Billy, on public display at the Los Angeles Zoo, on December 13, 2006.
David McNew/Getty Images

A city councilman said Tuesday that he wants to move an Asian elephant from its longtime home at the Los Angeles Zoo to a sanctuary where it can roam more widely. But zoo officials say the animal's state-of-the-art habitat gives him the range he needs for a good life.

Councilman Paul Koretz and the group Voice For The Animals say Billy's habitat is constrained and that behavior by Billy in which he sometimes bobs his head is a sign of trouble. Koretz intends to introduce a plan for moving Billy at Wednesday's council meeting.

Billy, born in 1985 and a resident of the zoo since 1989, is part of the Elephants of Asia exhibit that includes two females, Tina and Jewel. They are separated from him by a fence.

Advocates of moving Billy to an elephant sanctuary contend he cannot get enough exercise at the zoo for his physical and psychological health.

"I don't believe that the zoo can take the necessary care and give what the elephants need," said Melya Kaplan, founder of the Voice For The Animals Foundation, told reporters.

Zoo officials held their own news conference at the zoo to defend their care of Billy, who moved about in the background.

"Billy is given free range," said Josh Sisk, curator of mammals. "He's given options each day. He has enrichment devices."

The Elephants of Asia exhibit opened in 2010 and is the zoo's largest habitat, encompassing 6.5 acres.

Almost half of it is open space and includes bathing pools, a waterfall and varied topography. The habitat also includes a high-tech barn for care of all sizes of elephants.

Zoo officials said the elephant's habitat exceeds state and federal standards, as well as those of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Opponents contend that Billy and the females cannot use the entire area set aside for them because they are kept separated.

Zoo Director John Lewis said the separation is necessary.

"There is a barrier between them. But they touch, they share food, they talk to each other, they socialize," he said. "And the barrier is there because the two girls are post-reproductive cows, and we don't want to take the risk that they might be bred by Billy because that would be really bad for them."

Billy displays the head bobbing behavior when he is aware he will be fed soon, Lewis said. "He uses the bobbing in anticipation of his keepers, when he hears them in the barn, when he knows it's time to get fed," he said.

Voice For The Animals plans to raise funds for moving Billy at a May comedy fundraiser featuring celebrities including Lily Tomlin and Craig Ferguson.

This story has been updated.