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Zoo elephants pampered, pedicured, not persecuted, city says

June 18, 2012 |  2:16 pm

To the real estate agent suing the city of Los Angeles over how its zoo treats elephants, Billy lives a miserable existence.

The Asian elephant has spent many of his 27 years at the zoo in Griffith Park. He's now overweight and plagued by cracked toes and weary joints, plaintiff Aaron Leider alleged in court papers. Billy plops down and bobs his head for hours, which some experts describe as a sign of emotional distress, and is sexually frustrated for months at a time.

Billy's condition is Exhibit A in a trial that began Monday in downtown Los Angeles, in which Leider is seeking to shut down the zoo's elephant exhibit. The long-running lawsuit has been closely watched in the animal-rights community, as testimony could potentially embarrass city officials who signed off on a $42-million "Elephants of Asia" exhibit that critics said harms the health of its occupants.

During opening statements, plaintiff attorney David Casselman said the exhibit was so cramped that it was like stuffing a "blue whale in the equivalent of a goldfish bowl," and the ground so hard that it wore down the animals' joints and feet.

John Carvalho, a deputy city attorney, scoffed at the accusations. He said the elephant exhibit met the standards of both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Assn. of Zoos and Aquariums, and that Leider was using the trial as a bully pulpit for his anti-zoo views.

The elephants — Billy, Tina and Jewel — are pampered with daily baths and "elephant pedicures," Carvalho said. Their exercise was adequate and their treatment kind. "If only people were treated so well," he said.


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— Ashley Powers at Los Angeles County Superior Court

Photo: Two female Asian elephants, Tina and Jewel, at the L.A. Zoo's "Elephants of Asia" exhibit in December 2010. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times