Practical Issues > Animals Used for Entertainment > Zoos - Index
Zoos Delusional to Believe Its Elephants are Happy

by Piper Hoffman
July 30, 2012

Los Angeles zoo officials who believe they are treating their elephants well are "delusional," according to federal judge John L. Segal. As the Los Angeles Times reports,

"He painted a particularly unflattering portrait of the zoo's 'senior elephant keeper,' who he wrote displayed at trial 'somewhat shocking gaps in her knowledge' and 'surprising misconceptions' and who maintained an 'anthropomorphic fantasy' about the animals' happiness."

The judge also found that "the elephants' existence is 'empty, purposeless, boring and occasionally painful.'"

The judge's harsh criticism was his conclusion in a lawsuit against the L.A. Zoo for abusing and neglecting the elephants caged there. Judge Segal stopped short of calling the zoo's treatment "abuse" and failed to confiscate the elephants from the zoo, but he agreed with the plaintiffs that the elephants were suffering terribly despite the zoo's "delusion" that they were treated better than many humans.

The lawsuit accused the zoo of penning the elephants in a space that is too small, causing boredom and excess weight gain: the elephants have only three acres, but in the wild they would roam for up to 18 hours a day. The plaintiffs also alleged that the ground in the exhibit was too hard, leading to foot and joint problems. The one male elephant among the three in the zoo, Billy, bobs his head up and down for hours, a sign of emotional and mental distress.

Many commentators had been skeptical about the plaintiffs' allegations that the zoo mistreated and neglected the elephants, including interviewers on Varney & Co., a Fox Business Network television show where I appeared to defend the goals of the lawsuit.

Opponents of the lawsuit argued that zoos are important to instill a love for animals in children. Judge Segal thought otherwise, especially when the animals are so obviously suffering:

"Judge" Segal also suggested that LA Zoo visitors could see that Billy and his elephant companions were clearly unhappy, negating the purpose of exhibiting wild animals for the public's education and entertainment. 'The Elephants of Asia exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo is not a happy place for elephants,' wrote Segal. 'Nor is it for members of the public who go to the zoo and recognize that the elephants are neither thriving, happy, nor content.'"

The L.A. Times reported that the judge ordered the zoo to "make changes that include instituting daily two-hour exercise periods, forbidding the use of electric shocks and and tilling the habitat's soil so the ground is softer."

This is the first time that a judge has ordered a zoo "to improve the way it cares for its animals," according to Plaintiff Aaron r and The Huffington Post. The judge's recognition of elephants' emotions and mental need for stimulation is part of a swelling sea change from recent times when animals' feelings were not acknowledged or taken into account under the law.

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