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Robert Culp Attempts to Shut Down Elephant Exhibit at L.A. Zoo

21 Jan 2008

CNS --

Los Angeles -- Citing declarations by experts who contend the Los Angeles Zoo has a history of abusing and neglecting its elephants, actor/animal activist Robert Culp wants a judge to order the immediate closure of the pachyderm exhibit and stop work on its expansion, court papers show.

In a lawsuit filed Aug. 2 against the city and zoo director John Lewis, Culp and real estate agent Aaron Leider maintain zoo authorities have withheld medical care, kept the animals confined in a small area and used bull hooks and electric shock to control them.

The Los Angeles Zoo's elephant exhibit is currently home to a lone pachyderm -- 21-year-old Billy.

After prevailing against the city's motion in October contesting the legal sufficiency of the suit, the men now want a preliminary injunction shutting down the exhibit and stopping the ongoing construction pending trial of their lawsuit, which seeks to make both steps permanent. A hearing is set for Feb. 6.

"If (zoo officials) are allowed to proceed with their plans while this action is pending, (they) will waste tens of millions of dollars more on an exhibit and program which will injure, cause great physical pain, suffering and premature death to the elephants ...," attorney David B. Casselman, representing Culp and Leider, said in a declaration filed Jan. 14 in support of a preliminary injunction.

Deputy City Attorney John A. Carvalho was not immediately available for comment, but said previously that the zoo is in full compliance with federal and state statutes.

According to Casselman, Lewis acknowledged in a deposition that though he hopes to breed elephants at the expanded exhibit, there is no plan for how families will be managed or how they will be maintained.

"He did confirm that rather than keep them with their family units, the new elephants will be transferred elsewhere as needed to further their breeding objectives," Casselman wrote. "In fact, Mr. Lewis acknowledged that he is not familiar with any existing successful breeding programs in other zoos."

According to Casselman, Lewis also said Billy would be a breeder in the new program, even though the animal has never been tested or evaluated for breeding purposes.

Gary Kuehn, a former staff veterinarian at the Los Angeles Zoo for more than 20 years, states in his declaration in support of the injunction that mistreatment of the animals was widespread.

"They were abused by their handlers," Kuehn stated. "They were abused by the nature of their confinement in a very small environment. They were abused by the manner in which they were deprived of their families and normal social interaction; and they were mentally abused in a variety of ways."

The alleged mistreatment of the zoo's elephants included the use of bull hooks, as well as electric shock treatments, when the animals disobeyed trainers, according to Kuehn.

"The zoo director was completely aware of and complicit in these actions," according to Kuehn. "My efforts to report my extreme agitation to such abuse fell on deaf ears."

Lewis was not the director at the time.

David Hancocks, a zoo architect and design expert, states in another declaration that the zoo's elephant exhibit expansion plans do not provide enough space to implement Lewis' plans for a breeding program.

"The size increase, given the relative size and needs of elephants, is like enlarging the size of a closet and expecting people to be satisfied to live there," according to Hancocks.

A baby elephant born at the zoo would be "forced to live a life that is inherently inadequate and with an almost guaranteed existence of critical deprivations and a reduced lifespan," according to Hancocks.

Over the past three decades, 13 of the zoo's 31 elephants have died prematurely, according to the lawsuit.

The expansion plan approved by the Los Angeles City Council last year calls for the exhibit to encompass six acres, 3.7 acres of which would allow the pachyderms to roam more freely. Billy currently lives in a half-acre enclosure.

The exhibit, which is set to open in 2009, is meant to hold up to five adult Asian elephants and three of their offspring.

Animal rights activists have long complained about the zoo's treatment of elephants. Last May, Ruby, a 46-year-old African elephant, was moved to the Performing Animal Welfare Society Elephant Sanctuary in Northern California, where she and three other elephants have 70 acres on which to roam. Another L.A. zoo elephant, Gita, died in June 2006.

According to a necropsy performed on the animal, Gita died of cardiac failure associated with blood clots blocking the right chamber and major vessels of her heart. An investigation determined that zoo officials were slow to react after the elephant was reported in a downed position.

Culp, 77, is best known for his role as a secret agent on the 1960s television series "I Spy," in which he co-starred with Bill Cosby.

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