Elephants at the L.A. Zoo
Learn about our elephant program, our approach to animal care, and our commitment to conserving and protecting endangered Asian elephants
The L.A. Zoo’s Elephants of Asia exhibit is home to four Asian elephants – three females and one male. Females Tina and Jewel came from the San Diego Zoo in 2010. They have been together for more than three decades, having spent most of their lives in a circus environment. Shaunzi, another mature female, is the latest addition to the Zoo’s herd. She arrived from the Fresno Chaffee Zoo in June, 2017, following the death of her lifelong companion, Kara. Prior to their arrival at the Fresno Chaffee Zoo in 1983, Shaunzi and Kara were in a circus as well.
Billy, our male, arrived at the L.A. Zoo as a four-year-old calf from Malaysia – a country that has experienced tremendous wildlife habitat loss in recent decades.
Many people care deeply about elephants – due to their size, their majesty, their intelligence, and their precarious status in the wild. So naturally, we get lots of questions about our program at the L.A. Zoo.
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 due to poaching, conflicts with human populations, and habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation.
While African elephant populations have stabilized in recent years thanks to awareness and conservation efforts, Asian elephants are on the decline. Today, there are fewer than 40,000 remaining in the wild, occupying just 15 percent of their historic range. The severely fragmented habitats that remain restrict the movement needed to maintain healthy populations and survive long-term.
By raising awareness of the plight of their wild counterparts, Billy, Tina, Jewel, and Shaunzi are helping to save 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 more information 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.
Optimal Living Conditions
Quite simply, the living conditions for our elephants are nothing short of exceptional. They 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.
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).
Our elephants also benefit from the ongoing work of our research team and from animal care innovations and technologies shared among institutions accredited by the AZA.
Our male elephant, Billy, has enjoyed elephant companions for the entirety of his three decades at the L.A. Zoo, having the opportunity for daily contact with Tina, Jewel, and Shaunzi. In addition, his keepers have provided social and emotional support throughout his life at the L.A. Zoo.
Exercise and Stimulation
Throughout their time at the L.A. Zoo, our elephants engage in 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.
All of our elephants take part in individualized enrichment plans that keep each animal physically and mentally fit. These plans focus on stimulating natural behaviors, minimizing atypical behaviors, and providing activities that are both engaging and beneficial. 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 Elephants of Asia. The exhibit also features timed feeders that provide food to the animals at random times during the day and night. This encourages the elephants to forage as they would in the wild. There are also two deep pools, a waterfall, and a variety of enrichment items such as boomer balls, fire hoses, and street sweeper brushes that provide stimulation and variety.
The exhibit’s system of large habitats ensures optimal flexibility in the use of space. It allows all the elephants to move between the various yards throughout the day, maximizing their opportunities for enrichment and exercise.
Minimizing Repetitive Behaviors
When Billy arrived at the L.A. Zoo as a four-year-old, he exhibited the repetitive behavior of head bobbing. More than 4,000 hours of research has shown that Billy’s 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, we break 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.
Billy doesn’t currently have a potential mating partner at the Zoo, as Tina, Jewel, and Shaunzi are past reproductive age. However, Billy’s genetics are very important to the population of Asian elephants currently in human care, which serves as insurance against extinction in the wild. In the event that a mate doesn’t join Billy at the L.A. Zoo, his sperm may be obtained for the purposes of artificial insemination. This is a common husbandry technique used in a variety of domestic and exotic species. Animals are trained through positive reinforcement and can choose not to participate at any time during a collection session.
Wellbeing: A Daily Priority
A team of experts ensures the daily comfort and wellbeing of all the elephants in our care. The elephants 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 can choose to participate in their daily care.
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.
Zoo or Sanctuary?
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 would not be allowed to mate and would be kept separate from any other elephants at the facility.
Want to learn more? Visit the 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.