On Tuesday, July 24, the 5 year lawsuit seeking to close the LA Zoo elephant exhibit ended when the Judge ruled in favor of plaintiffs actor Robert Culp (deceased) and real estate broker Aaron Leider. Judge Segal stated in his 60 page decision, "All is not well at the Los Angeles Zoo. Contrary to what the zoo's representatives may have told the Los Angeles City Council in order to get construction of the $42 million exhibit approved and funded, the elephants are not healthy, happy or thriving."
The roots of this lawsuit go back 15 years to a group of students who called themselves the Elefriends. They were part of an animal issues club that VFTA Executive Director Melya Kaplan facilitated at Crossroads and New Roads schools. We met weekly to discuss elephants in captivity and specifically how to help the then 4 elephants at the LA Zoo.
We spoke before the Zoo Commission about the fact that the space was too small for animals who walk 100 miles a day. We met with the District Attorney and presented a packet of vet reports documenting animal abuse to the LA Zoo elephants, and we held press conferences. All to no avail. We watched helplessly as Tara died in 2004, as the city council voted in 2006 to move forward with the inadequate and expensive elephant exhibit, and a few months after the council’s vote we watched as Gita died in the same place and in the same way as Tara had. We were devastated.
One day, sitting in our classroom at Crossroads, the students looked at me and asked, “What do we do now?” And I said, “let’s make a film”. They looked at me like I was nuts. I said, okay, you will bake brownies, you will make cookies, you will make cupcakes? The next day we held a bake sale and the students raised enough money to put an ad in Variety looking for a filmmaker. We received 35 responses, looked over resumes and reels, and chose Jacek Kropinski. And so “Elephants + Man: A Litany of Tragedy” was created. We hoped that by making a film chronicling the students’ fight to help the LA Zoo elephants; we could educate people and finally stop the tragedy.
As we were making the film, the LA Zoo decided to separate Ruby and Gita, who had lived together for 16 years. Ruby was sent to a zoo in Tennessee where she was isolated and miserable. We filed a lawsuit, and at the last minute when it was obvious that the judge was about to rule in our favor, Mayor Hahn ordered Ruby to be returned to LA. In 2005, we were allowed to see her. She was off exhibit, by herself in a small enclosure, next to Gita’s enclosure who by that time was very ill. I will never forget how Ruby was flinging her truck against the steel bars in anger and frustration as she watched her life long companion stand day after day in excruciating pain accompanied only by a keeper with a bullhook.
Finally in 2007, Mayor Villaraigosa ordered Ruby to be transferred to the PAWS sanctuary where she lived for four wonderful years surrounded by elephant friends, lots of space to roam, and a great deal of love and care.
In 2006, the City Council held perfunctory hearings and quickly approved a new, very costly and completely insufficient elephant exhibit. Realizing that the brutality was about to increase as the zoo would be bringing in more elephants, we spent the year researching the idea of a second lawsuit. We interviewed potential plaintiffs and attorneys and finally decided on Robert Culp and Aaron Leider as the plaintiffs and David Casselman as the attorney. In August, 2007, the lawsuit was filed.
As the lawsuit worked its way through the courts, we gave copies of our film to the city council in hopes of finding one council person who would agree to reopen the hearings on the Zoo elephant exhibit. We found that person in Councilman Tony Cardenas. In 2008, Cm. Cardenas held hearings to discuss the now $42 million dollar exhibit, but in January, 2009, in spite of many expert witnesses’ testimony, we lost when the city council approved the exhibit for the second time. Although we were tremendously disappointed, we knew we still had the lawsuit.
The Buddha said: There are three things that cannot be hidden for long � the sun, the moon and the truth.
On Tuesday July 24th, California Superior Court Judge John L. Segal issued an injunction against the L.A. Zoo prohibiting the use of bull hooks and electric shock, required the zoo to till the soil in the exhibit regularly, and to exercise the elephants a minimum of two hours a day. This decision is a major victory for the elephants!