John Frederick Walker

Billy the Elephant Gets a New Home, New Role

Posted in ivory news by JFW on February 6, 2009

Before my January 24th talk at the Los Angeles Zoo, I was privileged to be given a behind-the-scenes tour of the Pachyderm Forest, the elaborate new environment being built to eventually house Billy, the Zoo’s Asian elephant, and others of his kind that will be brought in to join him.  And of course, I got to see how Billy was doing.

No matter how many times one sees an elephant—and I’ve seen plenty in the wild—the sight of their vast bulk, wrapped in the rumpled hide that seems to embody every mark of time, making them seem marvelously old, observant and patient, always evokes a sense of awe.  Billy’s majestic, silent strides drew oohs and aahs from the zoo goers, who, like me, pushed up against the railing of his current enclosure for a better look.

The Los Angeles City Council’s decision four days later to allow construction to continue on the controversial, $42-million dollar Asian elephant habitat was the right one.

Opponents, who for months had rallied to shut down the project and send Billy away out of overblown concern for his welfare, were doubtless well-intentioned. But their attitudes and arguments amounted to misplaced animal advocacy that was oblivious to the need to educate the public.

Billy’s not a pet. He’s the ambassador of an endangered species.

There are less than 50,000 Asian elephants left in the wild, scattered across divided and shrinking habitats that put these animals in constant conflict with ever-growing rural populations that encroach on elephant territory, turning the pachyderms into crop-raiding nuisances. These animals need our respect and sympathy for their fragile future.  Above all, they need public support for effective conservation policies.

Sure, Billy will still be confined, although soon enough he’ll be housed in a far more spacious and stimulating environment, complete with trees, waterfalls, and mud holes.  He’ll have female companionship and will be able to breed, something he wouldn’t be able to do if he had been shipped off to lonely exile in a sanctuary.

There, he would be out of sight—and the plight of Asian elephants out of mind to zoo goers.

I’ve spent the last five years researching the relationship between humans and elephants for my book, Ivory’s Ghosts. Nothing in that story is more fundamental than the deep shift in thinking that turned elephants from bearers of treasure to creatures we find far more important than anything that can be carved from their tusks.

That shift has been reflected in constantly evolving zoo policies world-wide:  elephants are no longer on view simply to entertain us.  They are there to awaken our wonder at those we share the planet with, which is why zoos are continually upgrading all their animal exhibits to better reflect natural environments and underscore the place of wildlife in ecosystems.

A trip to the zoo is often the only chance an urban population has to experience the fascinations of the animal world first-hand.  It’s where most city schoolchildren begin to appreciate nature and respect for the environment.  And today, zoos also function as “land arks,” doing valuable research and conducting breeding programs for endangered species, such as the Asian elephant.  Billy will now get to pass on his genes.

The sight of Billy striding quietly through the Pachyderm Forest or sinking into a deep pool to give himself a shower with his trunk, will do more to encourage respect for elephants and support for elephant conservation than sending him to a sanctuary could have ever accomplished.

One Response

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  1. MickiP65 said, on March 21, 2009 at 4:11 pm

    Great blog! Go, Billy! 🙂

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