Standing alone in a small enclosure, a 21-year-old Asian bull elephant named Billy seems oblivious to the two dozen schoolchildren who press against a chain-link fence to get a closer look. He bobs his massive head up and down and transfers his considerable weight from one side to the other. His trunk unfurls toward the blue plastic cylinder that has been provided for him to play with. Occasionally Billy lumbers over to another part of the yard--his massive gray body, wrinkled skin and billowy, fanlike ears intimidating yet at the same time irresistible. Some of the kids have never been this close to a real, live elephant, and their gasps and laughter convey the consensus: he's cool!
But to animal-rights activists, animal-behavior experts and even some zoo officials, Billy's situation is very uncool. In the wild, elephants roam as much as 30 miles a day, snacking on lush foliage, bathing in water holes and interacting socially with other elephants in groups of up to 20. At the Los Angeles Zoo, Billy has had just under an acre on which to roam. After a $39 million upgrade scheduled for completion in 2009, he will share 3.7 acres (about three football fields) with two companions.
That's generous by today's standards, but critics say it's still too little to give an elephant adequate exercise. Living in such confinement, elephants are prone to arthritis, foot problems and even premature death. Billy's head bobbing, they contend, is typical of elephants in distress and probably results from an inadequate physical environment. "I've come to the conclusion after many years that it is simply not possible for zoos to meet the needs of elephants," asserts David Hancocks, an outspoken zoo consultant and former director of the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle.
He's not alone. Over the past five years, major zoos across the country--San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, the Bronx Zoo in New York City--have quietly made the decision to stop exhibiting elephants altogether, some as soon as they can find homes for the animals and others after the deaths of the ones they have. For zookeepers, it's a continuation of a reform movement that began a generation ago and swept through most major U.S. zoos. The old concrete-and-steel cages that resembled prisons for animals are mostly gone. In fact, the cages themselves are mostly gone. The barriers between people and animals today consist largely of moats and unobtrusive ramparts that give the exhibits the feel of miniature wild habitats.
But the reform movement, say critics, didn't go far enough, and those natural-looking habitats are just an illusion created to enhance the visitors' experience. "From the animals' point of view," says Hancocks, "they are not better than they were when they were in cages. It's all done for theatrics."