Letters of Support For Closing the Elephant Exhibit


Dr. Joyce Poole

As Director of ElephantVoices, member of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project and previous head of Kenya Wildlife Service's Elephant Program, observing the natural behavior of elephants has been my life's work.  Thirty-three years of studying elephants allows me some insight into the scientific and humane issues surrounding the plight of Billy, the lone elephant, at the Los Angeles Zoo. 

All rhetoric aside, there is ample scientific evidence to declare that an urban zoo - the LA Zoo in this case - cannot meet the basic interests of an animal as large, as socially complex and as intelligent as an elephant. They possess long-term memory, self-awareness and the ability to empathize and have very long life spans.  Their needs demand that they roam many miles a day in order to stay physically and mentally well.

Billy's stereotypic head bobbing, is not a behavior observed in the wild; it is a coping mechanism for the loneliness, boredom and frustration that characterizes his life in the zoo. His behavior is symptomatic of the enormous frustration that a vigorous, highly social and intelligent creature experiences in confinement. And contrary to statements by the zoo, male elephants are not solitary. Until the age of 14 they live in the company of their families and, as adults, they spend two thirds of their time with other elephants. Billy was not designed for solitary confinement. Captivity is, in fact, particularly gruesome for males. Well fed and isolated they become trapped in a heightened sexual state known as musth, which makes their level of frustration, despair and on occasion, rage, even more intolerable.

The educational and conservation value of keeping Billy and others of his kind in the LA Zoo is, at best, questionable. Will their presence behind bars lead to Los Angelenos becoming more compassionate toward animals? Will they be more likely to choose a green lifestyle to ensure the survival of wild places for creatures like elephants? Does spending tens of millions of dollars to keep Billy and other elephants in the LA Zoo have anything to do with conservation when a fraction of the cost could ensure thousands of their kind a future in the wild? 

I am not against zoos, nor against elephants in captivity, per se, but it is not educational to allow children to believe that elephants are healthy and thriving in insufficient space, when science overwhelmingly shows they are not. Exhibiting elephants that display abnormal behavior caused by cramped conditions is animal abuse. You certainly don't have to be an elephant expert to see that Billy is suffering - kids comment on it all the time.

I don't doubt that the LA Zoo staff and supporters love Billy - this is not about kind or unkind keepers or members of the public, but about outdated policy. We simply know too much about elephants now to fall back on traditional zoo practice and rhetoric. It is insincere to allow elephants to suffer for the purpose of encouraging our children to appreciate them. Appreciation of the complex lives of elephants can better come from multimedia technology with links to conservation projects in the wild and LA is uniquely suited to lead the way.

Joyce Poole, PhD

Director ElephantVoices

Biography of writer:

Dr. Joyce Poole is Director of ElephantVoices. She has lived in Africa for most of her life and is a member of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project, the longest study of elephants in the world. For 33 years she has studied the behavior of wild elephants and worked for their conservation and welfare. In the early 1990s Dr. Poole headed Kenya Wildlife Service's Elephant Program and was responsible for the conservation and management of the country's then 25,000 elephants. She continues to study African elephants in Kenya and runs an elephant conservation and research project on Asian elephants in Sri Lanka


Dr. Dame Daphne Sheldrick

Dear Council Members,

The plight of a lone elephant in the Los Angeles Zoo has been brought to my notice, and since I am recognized as an authority on elephants, having hand-reared over 90 from early infancy, I feel qualified to offer some advice.   All the orphans that I have hand-reared during 50 years of my life, when full grown, have been successfully returned back where they rightly belong, amongst the wild herds of a Protected Area large enough to offer an elephant a quality of life in terms of space and companionship.  Many of our ex-orphans are now having wild-born young in Kenya’s Tsavo National Park (the size of Michigan State) and bringing them back to show their Keepers, i.e. the human family that replaced their lost elephant one in early infancy and who were with them until such time as they ultimately made the transition back into the wild community.   Because of such a long and intimate involvement with elephants, may I make a plea for the lone elephant in Los Angeles Zoo and suggest that as a good will gesture in this, the New Year of 2009, the authorities release him where he will enjoy the companionship of others and the space in which he should be.

 It has been scientifically established that elephants are “human” in terms of emotion, something that I can wholeheartedly endorse through 50 years of practical experience.  They have the same strong sense of family and of death; they have friendships that span a lifetime, and being gregarious, like humans, they need each other, and the companionship and comfort that friendship generates. Consider this � the worst punishment we inflict on our own human wrong-doers is solitary confinement and life imprisonment.   Is it therefore right to inflict this extremely severe punishment on an innocent animal that duplicates us humans in terms of emotion, longevity and age progression and moreover has a memory that far surpasses our own?  

Most good European Zoos have long understood that elephants should not be confined in captivity, that it is cruel to do so and that there is nothing educational about ogling a miserable captive.   They no longer keep elephants as exhibits.   As a World Leader, America should surely follow suit, especially in this, the 21st Century.   May I therefore plead for the release of the lone captive in Los Angeles Zoo; that he be sent to a Sanctuary where he will have more space, and the companionship of others.   No artificial situation, however attractive it may appear to us human onlookers, can possibly afford a captive elephant the space it needs.  One hundred miles in a day is just a stroll for an elephant. (Our l0 year old orphan did it in a day, turned around and walked 120 miles the next day.)   Elephants cross International Boundaries, and before humans were on the planet undoubtedly walked from the Cape to Cairo.  They are like us.  They suffer from trauma and stress, and because of this die younger in captivity.  Perhaps the Los Angeles Zoo will extend compassion by releasing their elephant and affording it a little happiness as a New Year’s gift.   I do hope so.

Dr. Dame Daphne Sheldrick DBE MBE MBS DVMS

UNEP Global 500 Laureate’ Winner of the BBC Lifetime Achievement Award and

Chairperson, The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya.


Mariana Tosca

An open letter to the Los Angeles City Council

Elephants, by virtue of their peripatetic nature and complex social structures, do not thrive or flourish when held captive in spatially insufficient enclosures.  The statistics from our nations’ zoos and circuses indisputably prove this.  The overwhelming majority of elephants living in artificial habitats have developed foot and joint diseases and mental disorders unique to their captivity.  An alarming number of them have suffered and died prematurely.  Very recently, one of our own died of exactly these maladies because she was unable to stand and bear her own body weight any longer.  Her interminable confinement on hard surfaces with a lack of natural exercise was the catalyst for her early demise.  An elephant’s natural lifespan is upwards of 60 � 70 years.  Since 1969, fourteen elephants have perished at the LA Zoo, most before the age of 20, yet in the Zoo’s promotional materials they state “The Los Angeles Zoo participates in Elephant Species Survival.”

Under any circumstance, but particularly with the tenuousness of our current financial crisis, it would be fiscally irresponsible to spend $40 million dollars simply enlarging an existing sub-standard space into a slightly larger sub-standard space that would still fail to provide an appropriate environment where the physical and psychological needs of elephants could be adequately met. This, to me, would be a lateral move and one not befitting a progressive and contemporary city like Los Angeles. 

The funds allocated for zoo use would be best spent improving the habitats of the other zoo residents, instead of incurring new astronomical medical costs to care for the guaranteed premature deterioration of animals that size.  Los Angelenos don't want their tax dollars being spent subsidizing a hospice for dying elephants.

Twelve zoos in the nation have all recognized that keeping elephants in confinement is an antiquated practice and have closed their exhibits.

The inevitable demise of Billy and any other elephants that would be brought in to the proposed exhibit, will rest on our reputations, on our resumes, in our legacies and on our consciences.

In closing, I’d like to urge those who haven’t yet agreed to this motion by paraphrasing Mark Twain.  Loyalty to a petrified opinion never once broke a chain or freed a soul. We now have the opportunity with the motions that Councilman Cardenas filed, to do exactly that.

When the time comes, please vote in favor.

Mariana Tosca


Former Animal Welfare Advisor to Rep. Dennis Kucinich


Dennis Kucinich

Dear Council Members:

I strongly urge your support for the motion that will come before the Council to close the elephant exhibit and release the lone remaining elephant to sanctuary rather than bringing in more elephants and placing them in a new zoo exhibit.

As a former member of the Cleveland City Council, I know full well the demands upon your time. I also know it is helpful to get new information when confronted with a decision or a vote.  So I decided to do some research on the issue of elephants and zoo confinement which I believe merits your consideration.

I recommend to your attention a 2005 study of Optimal Conditions for Captive Elephants by Lisa Kane, JD, Debra Forthman Ph.D. and David Hancocks.  The authors, experts on elephant welfare, behavior and zoo naturalism, review relevant research of the natural space, or home range, of various types of elephants.  Their research describes the “home range” parameters or the natural space of an elephant in the wild for specific types of elephants. They are between 34 square kilometers and 500 square kilometers.  For comparison, the City of Los Angeles is located upon 469.1 square miles, which is equal to 300,000 acres.  The new elephant exhibit at the LA Zoo is to be on 3.6 acres.  It’s been said that up to 10 elephants will be housed there.

All across America, zoos are reevaluating the practice of keeping elephants in small confinements. I humbly request that you consider the research I have presented and support the motion which will ensure sanctuary conditions for the housing of elephants by the LA Zoo.


Dennis Kucinich


Wayne Pacelle

On behalf of The Humane Society of The United States (HSUS), the nation’s largest animal protection organization with more than 10.5 million members, I write to express our support for Councilman Cardenas’ motion to bar the expenditure of more than $40 million for a new elephant enclosure.

This enclosure is being built to allow for the acquisition and housing of six to 10 additional elephants for captive display, and we support a closure of the elephant exhibit.

The past few years have seen an increase in attention to and interest in the status of elephants in captivity. Indeed, several zoos have decided, for a number of reasons, that maintaining elephants is not within their capability as institutions, or the best thing to do for this species, or represents the best use of finite resources. And although The HSUS applauds the individual and collective efforts of zoos to rethink and improve captive management of these creatures, many elephants still live impoverished lives in captivity. It is extremely difficult to meet the complex physical and psychological needs in the settings that zoos offer elephants, even in the most expensive and innovative enclosures.

We support the expenditure of dollars for infrastructure improvements at the Los Angeles Zoo.  But we think these expenditures can improve other animal exhibits, and that a re-directing of these funds is consistent with the wishes of voters in Los Angeles who want outstanding care and treatment of the animals at the Los Angeles Zoo.

We support moving the lone elephant at the zoo to a suitable sanctuary, and Los Angeles can again demonstrate its leadership on animal welfare by deciding to close its elephant exhibit and pursue a course other than acquiring other elephants for exhibition.

I thank you for your consideration.


Wayne Pacelle

President & CEO

Humane Society of the United States


Willie Nelson

To the Los Angeles City Council

I am writing to support  the two motions filed by Councilman Tony Cardenas for the closure of the  Los Angeles Zoo elephant exhibit and for the release of Billy the elephant to sanctuary.

I urge you to vote in favor of these motions.  The world's leading authorities on elephants and the country's largest humane organizations have provided the scientific proof that elephants demand an enormous amount of space in order to survive.  The acreage planned for the proposed exhibit simply won't offer enough space.

What it comes down to is this: what is humane and necessary for Billy?    Your only decision should be to close the exhibit and release Billy to a large acreage sanctuary.  I ask you to grant him that.

Willie Nelson


Bill Maher

To:  Los Angeles City Council

For years I've wondered when Mayor Villaraigosa was going to hold true to his campaign promise of 2005 to release the elephants housed at the LA Zoo.  There are two motions in front of you today; one will end the practice of inhumanely keeping the world's largest land mammals at the zoo, the other will give the one surviving elephant there a long overdue retirement package.  We're too far advanced as a society to remain rooted in an outdated policy that has been proven by the world's leading elephant authorities to be in exact opposition to the zoos claims of "conservation and education."  With eighteen other zoos across the nation pledging to close their elephant exhibits for that reason (twelve of which are already closed), as one of the most modern and advanced cities in the world, Los Angeles surely needs to follow suit.  Please cast your votes to close this exhibit and send Billy to a sanctuary.

Bill Maher

Paul Haggis

Dear Council Members,

My wife and I stopped allowing our children to attend the Los Angeles Zoo after a visit there that we found quite disturbing. We had stopped by the elephant exhibit only to find what were clearly distressed animals.

Now, you have to understand that I have always loved Los Angeles.  With whatever flaws it has, it has felt like home to me since the day I stepped off the plane thirty two years ago.  

But that day I remember wondering, "How could this great city allow these majestic beings to remain in such a decrepit state?"

One by one, the elephants died off, leaving this lone elephant remaining.

I enthusiastically support the motions to close this exhibit and to release Billy. He has given this city long service, and deserves to live out his life in a place where he can find room and comfort.

We are one of the most progressive cities in the world.   We have no excuse to choose self interest over all the scientific evidence. We have no excuse to continue displaying clearly distressed animals for our own entertainment.  I know entertainment, and that's not it.

The only humane choice we can make is to close this exhibit and send this elephant to a sanctuary.  I am confident that you will make the right decision when the time comes.

Respectfully submitted,

Paul Haggis


Brendan Fraser

To the City Council of Los Angeles

There are several reasons why I support the closure of the LA Zoo’s elephant exhibit and the release of the lone elephant to a sanctuary. The science proves that is it inhumane to hold an animal of that size and mental capacity in an enclosure that is not sufficient to its inherent needs.  In the wild, elephants are active between 16 and 20 hours a day and walk over 40 miles a day. Even at 3.5 acres, the new space would be horribly inappropriate for the needs of any elephant.  Right now, when at a city, state, national and global level, we are in a serious recession, we shouldn’t be wasting $42 million dollars on an exhibit that the world’s leading elephant authorities have already told us will be entirely inadequate and inhumane when it’s built.  It’s just not a wise way for the City of Los Angeles to spend that kind of money.  I can’t see bringing new animals into the collection when there are so many other animals already living in outmoded enclosures at the zoo who need to have their living conditions improved.  That money could do just that.

Brendan Fraser



Jason Patric

Dear Council Members,

The vote that is before you is a simple one, but a very important one.  When the world’s most respected elephant experts step forward with evidence proving how inhumane it is to hold elephants on minimal acreage exhibits in zoos, we’re obligated to listen to them and to heed their advice. There are so many other animals living in outmoded exhibits at the LA zoo, animals who are much better suited to living on property that size, that I can’t see how anyone could vote to bring new animals into an exhibit, which will be just as inhumane and inappropriate as the current one.  I do hope that when the vote is put before you, that you’ll vote to close the elephant exhibit and then retire Billy to a sanctuary.

Jason Patric



Jorja Fox

Dear Council Members,

We have all evolved beyond this primitive, misguided, and brutally cruel containment of elephants. We know too much. We have educated ourselves. The very best thing we could do for Billy is release him back into the wild.  Because that is not an option, we are humbly pleading with you all to release him to a sanctuary. We can go down in history as the people who had the vision, the wisdom, the compassion, and the generosity of spirit to do this one, simple, right, thing. Please. The dark and ignorant past is done.

We can't change that, but the future is in our hands. Let us move forward into something sustainable and kind. In the words of our own Mayor Villaraigosa, 'California is the Golden State. Let the sun shine in.'

Jorja Fox

Actress, CSI


Jane Velez-Mitchell

Dear Los Angeles City Council members:

This is the 21st Century. We have an elephant named Billy kept in a zoo for decades who is desperately unhappy and slowly going insane. That's obvious because he keeps rocking back and forth, the way people in mental hospitals do. 

You've undoubtedly heard complex arguments from both sides. But, let me quote Jiminy Cricket, "let your conscience be your guide."

Please don't think about this. Instead, pray about it. God or mother nature, or whatever higher power you believe in, didn't intend elephants to live this way.

There is a humane alternative available, a sanctuary willing to take Billy.  There he would socialize with other elephants. We all know, in our hearts, that is the morally correct solution. It just so happens to also be the economically smart decision. When people are losing their jobs and their homes, building a white elephant to house real elephants is an obscenity.

Come on council members!


Jane Velez-Mitchell

Investigative Journalist & TV Host


Collective Letter

To The City Council of Los Angeles,

We, the undersigned, are deeply concerned for the welfare of elephants currently in captivity.

We believe that the existing plans of the Los Angeles Zoo to spend a minimum of $40 million on the ‘Pachyderm Forest’ exhibit will fail to deliver the necessary welfare improvements to the lives of elephants at the zoo.

We believe that a viable and more effective alternative exists which will deliver significantly higher levels of animal welfare, consistent with the basic needs of this species.

We understand that at least seven other major American cities have decided that keeping elephants in restricted and unsuitable captivity within an urban environment is unacceptable.

We believe that the establishment of a multiple acre, open range elephant sanctuary by the city of Los Angeles is more humane than the Los Angeles Zoo plan, more cost effective and represents the minimum provision we should provide for elephants already held in captivity.

We furthermore understand that the creation of such a world-class facility would allow the Los Angeles Zoo to devote more space to their other animals, thus improving the quality of their lives as well.

Finally we fully support those members of the Council and the citizens of Los Angeles in their efforts to resolve this situation in the most positive and compassionate way possible.


Melanie Shepherd

Chief Executive

The David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation

United Kingdom


Dr Dame Daphne Sheldrick DBE MBE MBS DVMS

The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust



Jill Robinson MBE

Founder & CEO

Animals Asia Foundation


John A. Knight BVetMed., MIBiol., MRCVS.

Zoo and Wildlife Management Consultant

United Kingdom


Dr Joyce H. Poole, PhD

Director Research and Conservation, ElephantVoices

Norway, Kenya, Sri Lanka


Petter Granli

Executive Director, ElephantVoices

Norway, Kenya, Sri Lanka


Virginia McKenna OBE


The Born Free Foundation

United Kingdom


Dr Cynthia Moss


Amboseli Elephant Research Project/Amboseli Trust for Elephants

Kenya and United States of America


Dr W Keith Lindsay

Conservation biologist and Member, Scientific Advisory Committee

Amboseli Elephant Research Project/ Amboseli Trust for Elephants

Kenya and United Kingdom


Liz White


Animal Alliance of Canada



Barry Kent Mackay


ZooCheck Canada



Mary Rice

Executive Director

Environmental Investigation Agency

United Kingdom


Adam Roberts

Senior Vice-President

Born Free USA united with API

United States of America


Winnie Kiiru

Elephant biologist/PhD fellow

University of Kent

United Kingdom and Kenya


Susie Watts

Executive Director


United Kingdom


Dr Robert Atkinson

Head of Wildlife Department

The Royal Society for the Protection of Animals

United Kingdom


Will Travers

Chief Executive Officer

Born Free Foundation

Born Free USA united with Animal Protection Institute

United Kingdom and United States of America


Ian Redmond OBE

Wildlife Biologist

Co-founder Elefriends

United Kingdom


D.J. Schubert

Wildlife Biologist

Animal Welfare Institute

United States of America