It was a November Monday in Los Angeles. With the weather getting cold back home in Virginia, I was looking forward to the day in the sun.
The Uber driver and I chatted easily as we drove toward my destination, the Los Angeles Zoo, but inside, I was mentally preparing myself for my first meeting with Billy. For about a year, I’ve known about Billy, an Asian Elephant who is held captive at the Los Angeles Zoo. From my colleague, Kiersten Cluster, who has worked tirelessly for Billy’s release, I learned that he was stolen from his mother and the wild life he might have known, at the tender age of four.
Since then, for 28 years, his life has been confined to a small plot of land in a teeming human metropolis. Everyday, hundreds of people pass through, look at him for a few minutes and move on, having just seen a “living specimen” of one of our most charismatic neighbors on Earth. Few of these visitors will realize that they have just seen a shadow of an Elephant, his soul broken, hanging onto sanity the only way he knows how, by bobbing his head up and down, up and down, up and down, ceaselessly, day in, day out.
Today, I would be among the spectators; not to point and laugh, not to take selfies, not to quench a shallow interest in our fellow species. I was coming to bear witness, to see and feel Billy’s suffering first hand.
It took me some time to find my way through the maze of the Zoo to Billy. When I found him, tears sprung to my eyes. Billy was slowly and methodically eating bits of hay out of a feeding box, first blowing the bits out with his trunk, then curling his trunk around them where they landed in the packed dust that is the main substrate in his enclosure. When the hay box was empty, he plodded slowly toward the next box, and went through the motions again. As Billy headed toward the third and final box, a visitor joked, “I think you’ve had enough, Buddy!”
How could they look at this magnificent person, stuck in a box with just a few electric-wire covered trees and think that any amount of hay could satiate his hunger? He should be pulling down branches, picking fruit, cracking bamboo, covering miles every day to enjoy the best sustenance. Instead he was a spectacle, offered the meager feeding boxes, which are supposed to be “enrichment” that will compensate for the forests, family, and friends he has lost.
Although Billy’s enclosure had a small pool, he would only stand at the edge. Taking small drinks, splashing a bit on his belly, I watched Billy, his eyes blank, more still than any Elephant I had ever seen in the wild or in Sanctuary such as Boon Lott Elephant Sanctuary (BLES) in Thailand. It wasn’t the stillness of an Elephant listening to something or someone in the distance. It was the stillness of a person who is “somewhere else.” A soul in desperation, dying from the loneliness and deprivation of a zoo.
Shortly thereafter, Billy urinated in the water and then turned to walk the few steps which make up the limits of his enclosure. A group of young children had arrived, and were quickly instructed to gather round with their backs to Billy, for a class picture. Not a single child, or the teacher taking the picture, looked at the Elephant long enough to see his large penis hanging down, having just finished relieving himself. If this lack of awareness didn’t show so clearly how ignorant most visitors are of Billy’s person-hood, barely sparing him a look, I might have been able to chuckle.
Billy is not the only Elephant at the Zoo. In an enclosure close by live Tina and Jewel, two female Asian Elephants. Although they have the company of one another, their life in captivity is just as dismal as Billy’s and just as unlike the life they would live if they were free. At one point during my visit, Tina and Jewel became excited. They trumpeted loudly to one another, and from where I stood near Billy, I could see them run from one end of their enclosure to another. Billy did not react: he did not move, he did not look up, his ears did move forward to listen. Billy was too lost in his own suffering to take any interest in the communications of his conspecifics.
Billy’s listless, plodding walk took him to a corner of his enclosure, furthest from zoo visitors. There, he did what I have seen him do in videos and what he does every single day. He began to bob his head, up and down, his tusks sawing slowing through air. All alone for so long, this is Billy’s only way of self-comforting. As I sat watching Billy bob, tears in my eyes, I was keenly aware of how loud the zoo was. The voices of many species cried out – imprisoned Parrots, Monkeys, and other wildlife. Workmen banged away in parts of the zoo undergoing construction, and the electric fence around the perimeter of Billy’s enclosure and the trees that decorate the zoo continued to click every two seconds – an aural reminder of Billy’s confinement.
Having come all this way across the country, I resolved to bear witness to the suffering of the other captives there as well. As I walked around the rest of the Los Angeles Zoo, I became steadily more horrified: Chimpanzees sitting lifelessly, patches of fur missing from destructive self-grooming as a means to cope with the deprivation of captivity, Birds with no room to fly, the Orangutan who locked eyes with me and asked for help, the Giraffe who passed slowly back and forth swaying in despair, the Lion with a tiny stretch of outdoor space whose roars brought visitors running, cameras at the ready. All of these beautiful persons, deprived of a meaningful life, treated as mere spectacles, only a day’s entertainment for the kids.
Alone or with conspecifics, they are all suffering. Some are transferred to other zoos, torn from any relationships they had formed. Their lives are once again punctuated with the pain of captive life. Others, like Billy, are routinely violated in breeding efforts – masturbated by trainers or keepers to produce semen so that the torture of captivity can be continued even when nature rebels- compounding the trauma of captivity. Successful “breeding efforts” merely create more agony – separation of mothers and babies, and another generation pulled further from the wild life they deserve.
All of these animals deserve better. All of them desperately need healing. None of them will see the wild again or live free from the boundaries of human culture. There is hope that some of them will find some healing and peace, and regain some sense of Self, in sanctuary.
This is what we at The Kerulos Center are fighting for, for Billy and other bull Elephants in North America with our All Bull Elephant Sanctuary (ABES). As we share with others an understanding of the immense suffering caused by captivity, we hope that our efforts for Elephants will encourage efforts to free all animals.