Animal activists urged the public Wednesday to sign a petition calling on the Los Angeles Zoo to release one of its elephants to a sanctuary with more space to roam.
Billy the Elephant, who has lived at the zoo for most of his 30 years, has long been the subject of protests against his captivity. An ongoing lawsuit filed by a real estate agent in 2007 alleges his cramped zoo habitat, isolation from other elephants and other conditions are unsuitable for his species.
Los Angeles Zoo officials have since upgraded Billy's habitat as the result of court rulings, but Karen Eisenlord, the petition's author, said the pachyderm continues to exhibit "significant signs of stress, such as swaying and rocking side to side"and head-bobbing, behavior that could indicate "frustration, boredom and possibly depression."
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Eisenlord said the zoo has wasted taxpayer dollars to build the new enclosures, and she feels "betrayed and lied to" after observing that Billy still appears distressed and unhappy.
Eisenlord's petition so far has garnered more than 160,000 signatures.
The petition, hosted at the Care2 website, also calls for the release of two other female elephants, Tina and Jewel, who live at the zoo, and asks supporters to contact Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and members of the City Council about freeing the animals.
"It is important to send a positive message to children and all people that animals are valued members of society, too," Eisenlord said. "Children should not visit zoos where they see animals suffer. This gives them a horribly mixed message."
Los Angeles Zoo spokeswoman April Spurlock responded to the petition Wednesday, saying that the zoo's three elephants, including Billy, are given "social contact every day through visual, auditory and physical contact."
The elephants are also offered "daily enrichment" such as unexpected treats left in foraging areas for them to discover, she said.
Spurlock added that zoo officials "are confident that the L.A. Zoo is the best place for the elephants."
While the zoo "respects the work of sanctuaries and all they do to help elephants and other animals that have no alternatives for an appropriate home, we do not believe sending Billy, Tina, or Jewel to a sanctuary is in their best interest," she said.
The elephant facility that opened at the zoo in 2010 includes "over three acres of outdoor space, deep bathing pools, sandy hills, varied topography, clever enrichment opportunities and a high-tech barn capable of caring for elephants of all sizes and ages," Spurlock said.
Spurlock also responded to criticism that Billy's enclosure separates him from the other elephants, saying that "although separate from the females, Billy can often be seen greeting the females, touching trunks and sharing food."