Skip to content

Honoring elephants’ birthright of freedom

By Kiersten Cluster

I remember being a very young child and getting separated from my family at a zoo. I don’t remember how old I was or which zoo we visited that day. What I do remember is standing in front of an enclosure face to face with an enormous, magnificent gorilla. He stared straight into my eyes and I could feel his dignified presence. I knew he was saying, as clearly as if he were speaking in human language, I do not belong here.

I did not become active in the movement for nonhuman animal rights until much later in life, but the encounter with that gorilla lived in my heart. As an adult, I read about captive elephants released to sanctuary and was inspired to visit the local zoo to learn about the elephants held in my city. That was the day I met Billy the Elephant, held in the Los Angeles Zoo since 1989. As with the gorilla and every other nonhuman being held in captivity, I understood that the zoo was not and never could be his home.

How captivity harms elephants

I started researching and reading everything I could about Billy and the impact of captivity on elephants. I learned that Billy was taken from his mother and his natural home in Malaysia as an infant. He was transferred to the Los Angeles Zoo at the age of four where he remains to this day. In the zoo, Billy has developed what experts call stereotypical behaviors. The incessant head bobbing and swaying demonstrated by Billy is an attempt to cope with the intolerable stress and physical restrictions of the captive environment. These movements are often observed in captive-held elephants but are not seen in free-living herds. When children and their families watch Billy bobbing his head, they are witnessing a broken elephant forced into overwhelming circumstances outside the framework of his genetic memory.

Elephants in captivity are telling us loud and clear, with every bob and sway, that they are not thriving in captivity. This message is also well-documented in current research. A zoo enclosure is considered an impoverished environment compared to the expanses that are home to wild elephants across Asia and Africa. Elephants, the largest land animal on earth, have evolved to co-exist within complex, fluid communities in vast, challenging, and dynamic ecosystems. Elephants require miles to walk, forage, and engage in their unique social and cultural activities. In the Los Angeles Zoo, the elephants are confined to about three acres of compacted substrates with little cognitive or social stimulation.

In addition, research has revealed that bull elephants are not solitary animals. In the wild, a young male elephant would remain with his mother and natal herd until about the age of 13 when he would venture out to join a nearby all-bull group. At this point, the second phase of male elephant socialization would begin. The young bull would learn how to be an adult male elephant from his elders. He would form lifelong bonds with his all-male group, mentor young bulls, and interact with female herds for social and procreation purposes. This rich, complex social life is denied to bull elephants held in captive environments.

The consequences of impoverished captive environments lacking in space, stimulation, and complex social opportunities include poor physical and mental outcomes. The leading causes of death for captive elephants are arthritis and foot disease due to lack of space, restricted exercise, and hard substrates. It has been estimated by researchers that 50% of captive elephant deaths are caused by foot problems and arthritis related diseases. Other health concerns include dental disease, digestive issues, obesity, and heart disease as well as a variety of skin, metabolic, and infectious diseases. These consequences of captivity lead to acute suffering and compromised life spans.

Research reveals that elephants endure extreme stress and trauma due to the conditions of captivity resulting in brain damage and stereotypical behaviors. In a recent paper on the neural consequences of captivity, a team of experts found that the impoverished environment of captivity not only has a negative impact on physical and psychological health, but it also causes deficits in the structures of the brain across species.

How sanctuaries help elephants

There is a better option for elephants such as Billy. Although still a form of captivity, sanctuaries accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS) provide a haven for captive-held animals who cannot go back to their wild homes. The biggest difference between a zoo and a true sanctuary is philosophy. While a zoo has a financial interest in perpetuating the captive industry, sanctuaries exist to provide refuge and care for those forced into captivity. True sanctuaries will no longer be necessary when zoos, circuses, and other institutions of captivity cease to exist.

In Defense of Animals has reported that, since 1991, at least 25 zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums have closed their elephant exhibits, a strong indicator of their inability to sustain a thriving captive population. The Knoxville Zoo in Tennessee is in the process of transferring their three African elephants, held in the zoo for more than 20 years, to The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. The zoo stated that the move will enable the three elephants “to receive the care they need and fulfill their social requirements” and that they are putting the wellbeing and happiness of the elephants first. These statements illustrate that modern zoos are coming to terms with the fact that elephants do not and cannot thrive in the zoo environment and their health and welfare must be the priority.

Billy has been offered a forever home at the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), a GFAS accredited wildlife sanctuary in Northern California. At PAWS, Billy would be free from the stress of constant public display and from the noise and pollution of living in the middle of a big city. Elephants have incredibly sensitive hearing, including the ability to feel vibrations through their feet. Billy is subjected to the noise from the Los Angeles freeways as well as the crowds and loud music that are part of life in a city zoo. Beyond the relative privacy, peace, and quiet of sanctuary, Billy would have at least 15 acres to roam, forage and engage in other natural behaviors. And, of course, he would have 24/7 expert care, including medical care.

The way forward for Billy and other elephants

Efforts to secure Billy’s release from the Los Angeles Zoo have been ongoing for years. In November of 2022, a subcommittee of the Los Angeles City Council voted to retire Billy to sanctuary. However, the motion has yet to be heard by the full council. Elephant Guardians of Los Angeles, together with many organizations and individuals advocating for the end of captivity, continues to call upon the City of Los Angeles to release Billy to PAWS where he can retire in peace. In addition, we seek the release of Tina and Shaunzi, the remaining two female elephants held in the Los Angeles Zoo. Their companion, Jewel, was euthanized in January of 2023. Our hope is Billy, Tina, and Shaunzi will be given the chance to experience the healing of sanctuary before it is too late, along with Nolwazi, Amahle, and Mabu held in the Fresno Chaffee Zoo, Lucy held in the Edmonton Valley Zoo, Chendra held in the Oregon Zoo, Happy and Patty held in the Bronx Zoo, and countless others languishing in captivity around the world.

We are grateful for the tireless efforts of the Nonhuman Rights Project to foster the paradigm shift required to end elephant captivity. Through their legal expertise and public outreach, the NhRP embodies the dedication necessary to dismantle the hierarchy of dominion and, instead, extend respect and compassion to all regardless of species. The complex issues surrounding captivity addressed by the NhRP encompass so much more than releasing one elephant suffering behind bars in a city zoo. However, honoring the birthright of freedom and autonomy for one elephant matters, as does listening to one gorilla in a zoo enclosure who empathically insists: I do not belong here.

Our litigation to #FreeTheFresnoElephants is our first lawsuit in California. Learn more about Amahle, Nolwazi, and Mabu’s case on their client page. Learn about ongoing efforts to #FreeBilly on Elephant Guardians of Los Angeles’ Facebook page.

Kiersten Cluster is the co-founder of Elephant Guardians of Los Angeles (EGLA), which is dedicated to freedom, dignity and compassion for all regardless of species. EGLA advocates for the release of the three elephants held in the Los Angeles Zoo and is a founding organizer of the International Candlelight Vigil4Elephants, an annual global event that remembers and honors the elephants who died in captivity around the world over the preceding year.

Sign up to receive the latest updates on our mission

Find out about opportunities to get involved, breaking news in our cases and campaigns, and more.