Elephants at the L.A. Zoo
Learn about our elephant program, our approach to animal care, and our commitment to conserving and protecting this endangered species
The L.A. Zoo’s Elephants of Asia exhibit is home to four Asian elephants – three females and one male. Tina and Jewel (both in their early 50s) came from the San Diego Zoo in 2010. They have been together for 35 years, having spent most of their lives in a circus environment. Shaunzi, age 46, is the latest addition to the Zoo’s herd. She arrived from the Fresno Chaffee Zoo in June, 2017, following the death of her lifetime companion, Kara, earlier that month. Prior to their arrival at the Fresno Chaffee Zoo in 1983, Shaunzi and Kara were in a circus.
Billy the bull arrived as a young calf from Malaysia – which has experienced tremendous wildlife habitat loss in recent decades. He is 32 years old.
Many people care deeply about elephants – due to their size, their majesty, their intelligence, and their precarious status in the wild. Naturally, we get lots of questions from these people about our program at the L.A. Zoo.
Other people — who lack an understanding of the expertise and dedication that the daily care of elephants demands — are seeking to take animal care decisions out of the hands of highly qualified zoo professionals who have committed their lives to preserving and protecting the species. Some of these individuals are advocating that Billy be moved from his home at the L.A. Zoo to a sanctuary, erroneously believing such an environment would be best for him.
Elephants of Asia was designed to be the very best home for elephants. Billy, Tina, Jewel, and Shaunzi benefit from tremendous resources, a dedicated staff, and cutting-edge technologies. They are ambassadors for their species, which is facing extinction in the wild. By raising awareness of the plight of their wild counterparts, Billy, Tina, Jewel, and Shaunzi are saving Asian elephants.
The children who form passionate relationships with animals by visiting the Zoo today will be the veterinarians, biologists, wildlife conservationists, and animal advocates of the future. Without the opportunity to educate our public about Asian elephants and other imperiled animals, the fight to protect them in the wild will be lost.
Read on for the answers to common questions about daily life and care at Elephants of Asia. We think you’ll agree that the L.A. Zoo is the best home for our elephants.
What are the living conditions for elephants at the L.A. Zoo?
The living conditions are nothing short of exceptional. Not only do our elephants live in one of the best elephant habitats in North America, their daily care is managed by dedicated, expert staff and they receive top-quality healthcare.
They also benefit from the work of the L.A. Zoo’s research team and from animal care innovations and technologies shared among institutions accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA).
Is Billy kept alone?
Billy has enjoyed elephant companions for the entirety of his 28 years at the L.A. Zoo, having the opportunity for daily contact with Tina and Jewel. This will be true with Shaunzi as well, once she is acclimated to her new habitat. In addition, Billy’s keepers have provided social and emotional support throughout his life at the L.A. Zoo. After decades together, the keepers are part of Billy’s “herd.”
Are exercise and stimulation provided for the elephants?
Throughout their time at the L.A. Zoo, our elephants have gotten regular daily exercise and stimulation, both in their previous habitat and at Elephants of Asia. Our staff work very hard to ensure that they are physically and mentally active.
Why does Billy bob his head?
When Billy arrived at the L.A. Zoo as a four-year-old, he exhibited the repetitive behavior of head bobbing. Research has shown that the head bobbing is most often anticipatory in nature. Similar to when people tap their toes or fidget, Billy will bob his head when he expects food or is waiting for a specific activity. To minimize the behavior, the animal care staff breaks up Billy’s routine on a daily basis, with no two days being exactly the same. And it works.
Even though we’ve been able to reduce Billy’s head bobbing, once this kind of behavior is set in early life, it’s impossible to eliminate completely. The good news is that, through research and extensive exams, we’re able to ensure that the behavior is not detrimental to his physical or psychological health.
Is Elephants of Asia large enough for all the elephants?
Elephants of Asia features 3.6 acres of soft surfaces that are covered in 2.5 feet of sand that is rototilled on a monthly basis. The entire facility is 6.56 acres, with varied terrain and hills that offer plenty of opportunities for exercise as well as physical and mental enrichment. The state-of-the-art barn is capable of caring for elephants of all sizes and ages. As the largest habitat in the history of the L.A. Zoo, Elephants of Asia vastly exceeds the standards of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA).
Why is the habitat divided into large corrals?
This was by design, allowing for optimal flexibility in the use of space. With the system of corrals, the elephants are able to move from area to area throughout the day, which maximizes their opportunities for enrichment and exercise.
Is Billy in a breeding program? Are assisted breeding efforts invasive or detrimental?
Billy doesn’t currently have a potential mating partner at the Zoo, as Tina and Jewel are past reproductive age. However, Billy’s genetics are very important to the population of Asian elephants currently in human care. In the event that a mate doesn’t join Billy at the L.A. Zoo, his sperm may be collected for the purposes of artificial insemination, which is a common husbandry technique used in a variety of domestic and exotic species. Billy was trained in this procedure through positive reinforcement and could choose not to participate at any time during a collection session.
Do the elephants get enough exercise?
Like all our animals, the elephants are on structured enrichment plans that keep them physically and mentally fit. These plans focus on stimulating natural behaviors, minimizing repetitive behaviors like head bobbing, and providing activities that are both engaging and beneficial. At Elephants of Asia, our animal care staff begin each day with what they call “setting up the yard,” where food (hay, browse, produce) is placed in various locations throughout the habitat. This encourages the elephants to forage as they would in the wild. The exhibit itself also features two deep pools, a waterfall, and a variety of “toys” such as boomer balls, fire hoses, and street sweeper brushes that provide stimulation and variety.
Are the elephants’ comfort, health, and dignity harmed by living at the L.A. Zoo?
No. A team of experts ensures their daily comfort and wellbeing. They are able to roam through their habitat freely, making decisions about what they do and where they go. Our training program allows each of the elephants to participate in their own healthcare and provides them with targeted exercise. It is not for entertainment. The elephants are able to exercise their own free will and are not forced to do anything they don’t want to.
Did the courts find that the Zoo needed to improve its care and treatment of elephants?
No. A recent California Supreme Court ruling upheld a lower court ruling on a civil injunction that was imposed in 2012. In several instances, reporting on this decision has failed to note that the Los Angeles Zoo has not only been complying with the standards detailed in the injunction – we were doing so prior to the injunction, and will continue to do so.
The court’s decision has been misunderstood by many as a step away from world-class animal care standards. This could not be further from the truth.
The L.A. Zoo is accredited by the AZA, an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to conservation, education, and science. Fewer than 10% of the 2,800 wildlife exhibitors licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture under the Animal Welfare Act meet the more comprehensive standards of AZA accreditation.
The recent ruling has no bearing on the L.A. Zoo’s world-class animal care standards for our Asian elephants – and all the animals here.
So, given that it won’t change our approach to animal care, is the ruling entirely irrelevant? No. The California Supreme Court’s overturning of the injunction means that decisions about the welfare of our animals will be left to animal care professionals.
Does the Los Angeles Zoo use bull hooks or electric shock?
No, we do not and will not use bull hooks or electric shock. In accordance with AZA standards, we train all our animals through positive reinforcement techniques that focus on enrichment, mental and physical stimulation, and the animal’s voluntary participation in its own health care. This is a successful way to manage elephants because of the mutual trust between the keepers and animals.
Why not send Billy to a sanctuary, like you did with Ruby a decade ago?
We are accredited by the AZA, a distinction that signifies excellence in and commitment to animal management and welfare, safety, conservation, and education. In general, animals within AZA-accredited facilities are managed collectively as a species. When making a decision about moving an animal from one AZA facility to another, a zoo must first consult with the AZA for a recommendation on where that animal would be best placed. Using this process, the L.A. Zoo attempted to find Ruby a home in another accredited zoo, without success. We were then allowed to find Ruby a home outside of the AZA without jeopardizing our accreditation. After careful consideration, we chose the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS).
Why is there so much interest in Billy?
A very vocal group of animal activists is advocating that Billy move to a sanctuary. Their views are emotionally driven, rather than fact-based. While their genuine concern is evident, their views are, unfortunately, misguided and misinformed and their tactics are grossly misleading. If Billy were forced out of the L.A. Zoo as a result of their efforts, it would be to his detriment.
Wouldn’t a large sanctuary be best for the elephants?
While we respect the work of well run sanctuaries, there is no place outside of an AZA-accredited facility that can provide a better quality or scope of care. Our world-class staff, resources, and facilities ensure that the elephants receive excellent care, enrichment, exercise, mental stimulation, and opportunities for socializing every day. What’s more, in a sanctuary setting, Billy, as a bull, would likely not be allowed to mate and would therefore be kept separate from any other elephants at the facility.
Have more questions? We invite you to visit your Los Angeles Zoo today to view these magnificent animals in their state-of-the-art habitat and talk to our animal care and education staff.