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Judge criticizes treatment of L.A. Zoo elephants

July 24, 2012 |  4:23 pm

L.A. Zoo

While harshly critical of the conditions in which elephants are housed at the Los Angeles Zoo and sharply criticizing the animals’ caretakers, a judge on Tuesday nevertheless stopped short of shutting down the exhibit and found the treatment of the zoo’s three elephants does not rise to the level of abuse.

In his ruling, Superior Court Judge John L. Segal ordered that zoo officials exercise the elephants at least two hours a day and till the soil in the exhibit to lessen the pain on their joints. He also entered an injunction banning the use of certain disciplinary tools, including electric shocks and a barbed stick known as a “bull hook”--devices the zoo no longer uses.

In a 56-page opinion that expounded on appropriate elephant foot care, a male elephant’s extended period of sexual arousal and how best to interpret the animals’ head-bobbing – as a sign of distress or happiness, Segal concluded the elephants’ existence is “empty, purposeless, boring and occasionally painful,” but not abusive in violation of state law.

“This case raises the question of whether the recreational or perhaps educational needs of one intelligent mammal species outweigh the physical and emotional, if not survival, needs of another,” the judge wrote. “Existing California law does not answer that question.”

The judge was critical of zoo officials, calling them “delusional” at one point in the opinion, and painted a particularly unflattering portrait of the zoo’s senior elephant keeper, who he wrote displayed “shocking gaps in her knowledge,” “surprising misconceptions,” and maintained an “anthropomorphic fantasy” about the animals’ happiness.


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Photo: Billy, a 25-year-old Bull Asian elephant, takes a shower in the waterfall at the Elephants of Asia exhibit at the L.A. Zoo in 2010. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times