The elephant exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo should be shut down and the three occupants sent to available open space with softer ground, an attorney for an animal rights advocate told a judge today.
"Close this exhibit for elephants now - send them to sanctuaries. Their lives depend on it," lawyer David Casselman told Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John Segal during final arguments in trial of a lawsuit brought by his client, Aaron Leider.
But Deputy City Attorney John Carvalho said that after five years of case preparation and a six-day, non-jury trial, Casselman and Leider failed to support the need for closure of the Elephants of Asia exhibit, which opened in 2010 and replaced the old elephant showcase.
"It's a model for other zoos to follow,'' Carvalho said.
Segal took the case under submission and did not say when he would rule.
Casselman said despite the zoo's claims that the Elephants of Asia exhibit is six acres in size, most of that space is devoted to the public and only about a third is left for the pachyderms.
He told Segal that if he decides against ordering the closure of Elephants of Asia, he should issue an order that would ban alleged abusive practices, transfer all the pachyderms eventually to open space offered to the zoo and direct that the exhibit land be used to house other animal species.
Leider, a real estate agent and animal rights advocate, and the late actor Robert Culp filed the lawsuit in August 2007. Culp, known for starring opposite Bill Cosby in "I Spy," died in March 2010.
The suit, alleging animal abuse, is based on a "taxpayer waste" statute that authorizes injunctive relief in situations involving unlawful conduct, government waste or injury to public property, in this case, the elephants.
The Elephants of Asia exhibit expansion cost $42 million and was completed in November 2010 after the filing of the suit, which asks that training techniques using bull hooks and electrical shock be banned.
Los Angeles Zoo Director John Lewis testified that those tactics will never again take place as long as he is in charge, and Carvalho said what happened in the past with previous directors is irrelevant.
"He does not need to answer for the policies of his predecessors," Carvalho said. "There are no grounds for injunctive relief. Courts don't decide polemics, they decide legal claims."
But Casselman said only a court order will guarantee the objectionable training measures will not be used again.
"He (Lewis) could be gone next week and a new director won't be barred by anything he's done,'' Casselman told Segal.
Casselman said Los Angeles Zoo elephants die at an earlier age that in zoos elsewhere in North America; that keepers there have poor record-keeping practices; and that the facility has trouble keeping enough qualified veterinarians on staff.
He said the exhibit's lone male elephant, Billy, a 27-year-old born in Malaysia, is in a heightened state of sexual arousal known as - musth - for much of the year, but cannot follow his instincts to travel long distances in search of mates and has had limited contact with other pachyderms since being brought to the zoo many years ago.
The zoo's other two elephants, Tina and Jewel, females estimated to be between 37 and 44 years old, are on loan from the San Diego Zoo and arrived after the exhibit was expanded. Casselman alleged they and Billy are all under-exercised and suffer from predictable health problems.
But Carvalho denied the allegations and said the three receive "dedicated, loving and well-managed care." He said the two females once lived in an abusive environment in Texas that is in stark contrast to their environment today.
Carvalho said the alternative sites the suit suggested for the elephants all have shortcomings and denied that Billy suffers from isolation at the Los Angeles Zoo.
In May 2008, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John Shepard Wiley dismissed the lawsuit, but in September 2009, a three-judge panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal ordered the case sent back for trial. The state Supreme Court declined to hear the city's appeal of the panel's decision.
In 2010, Wiley denied Leider's request for an injunction that would have stopped the opening of the elephant exhibit expansion. Segal was given the case after Wiley was reassigned to another courthouse.
Fourteen elephants have died at the zoo since the 1966 exhibit opened, Casselman said.
One Los Angeles Zoo elephant, Tara, died in December 2004 of arthritis, and another, Gita, died in June 2006 of systemic infections due to arthritis, just after the City Council was assured that she was in good health.