Why Elephants, Like Billy, Don’t Belong in Captivity

Written by Kiersten Cluster

This article was originally posted in December, 2017. 

Billy, a male Asian Elephant, has lived behind bars at the Los Angeles Zoo for 28 years. Earlier this year, Los Angeles City Councilmember Paul Koretz introduced a motion, arguing that Billy should be released from the zoo and live the remainder of his life in a sanctuary. Rather than listening to this call, the Los Angeles Zoo brought yet another elephant into captivity – Shaunzi, a 46-year-old female Asian elephant — bringing their total of captive elephants to four.

Based on what science has taught us about this species, neither Shaunzi nor Billy nor Tina nor Jewel should be in the LA Zoo.

Current research  has shown that elephants kept in zoos show a number of health problems, including, “high rates of stereotypic behavior, a high prevalence of ovarian acyclicity, various health issues such as obesity, tuberculosis, herpes, and foot problems, and compromised survivorship.”

In their wild and natural state, elephants live within closely related communities of 20 to 30 elephants of all ages and both sexes, with thousands of miles to share with other groups. These expansive herds have historically roamed over the African and Asian continents (Poole and Granli, 2009). Researchers in one study found that their range covers approximately 373 miles (Williams, 2009). Moreover, the myth that male Elephants are solitary has been debunked by researchers in the field. Males require and flourish within a social community that includes lasting bonds with other male Elephants, as well as interaction with females and juveniles on a regular basis (O’Connell, 2015; Lee & Moss, 2009; Bradshaw, Schore, et al., 2005).

The Los Angeles Zoo does not provide anything close to an appropriate environment for elephants. The exhibit does not meet the most basic elephant needs for space, exercise, socialization, aesthetics, privacy and psychological wellness. The zoo is also located near a freeway in a crowded city which negatively impacts the sensitive auditory adaptations elephants have developed for life in their natural habitats.

The director of the Los Angeles Zoo has made it clear that they intend to use Billy for captive breeding purposes. Since the three resident females are past reproductive age, the zoo plans to bring in additional, younger females as potential mating partners, while also artificially collecting Billy’s semen.

Without his consent, Billy has been forced to endure numerous invasive procedures to extract his semen to inseminate captive females in other locations. These efforts continue even though captive breeding of elephants in North American zoos is spectacularly unsuccessful and reproductive issues are rampant.

There is no justification to imprison these highly complex, intelligent, and social species, especially since research shows that elephants experience psychological suffering in captivity comparable to humans. When subjected to the deprivations and profound trauma of captivity, elephants and humans acquire symptoms of Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While the stereotypical head bobbing and swaying in which Billy and other Elephants commonly engage is often mistaken for anticipatory delight or even dancing, it is in fact an expression of severe psychological distress and trauma.

The LA Zoo separates the male and female enclosures with barriers that greatly reduce the space the elephants have available. With the introduction of Shaunzi, there are now three elephants crowded into the female section, with plans to bring in more females as discussed above.

The only solution in the best interests of Billy and the three females is to release them to a sanctuary and end the captive breeding program. Under this scenario, the elephants retire to forever homes, at no cost to the zoo or the City of Los Angeles, where they will enjoy privacy, dignity, psychological healing and physical wellness after years of public exploitation.  Ending the captive breeding program will ensure that there will be no future captive-held elephants subjected to the cruelty of exploitation.

For Elephants like Billy, Shaunzi, Tina and Jewel, sanctuary is the best option since both captive conditions and environmental degradation have made it impossible for these elephants to return to their homes. Although still in captivity, the philosophical and physical differences between a zoo and a true sanctuary are evident. Beyond the focus on space, healing, and self-determination, sanctuaries “seek to put themselves out of business by advocating to end the kinds of use and abuse that result in animals requiring sanctuary in the first place” (Emmerman, 2014, p. 22).

It is time to phase out the practice of holding wild animals in captivity (which only serves human interests), and instead, take responsibility for our actions by closing the zoos, circuses, aquaria, and other outdated modes of animal exploitation, and transferring the remaining captive-held animals to accredited sanctuaries where they can enjoy quality lifetime care and healing. These decisions do not belong in the hands of zoos alone. These decisions must have input from representatives of the public, such as Councilmember Koretz, who do not have a financial interest in the captive industry. Only then will a consensus be reached that is truly in the best interests of captives like Billy, Shaunzi, Tina and Jewel.

Take Action!

Sign the Care2 petition asking the LA zoo to release Billy and the remaining elephants to a sanctuary!


Kiersten is passionate about animal rights and self-determination and is the co-founder of Elephant Guardians of Los Angeles, an anti-captivity lobbying group currently focused on Billy the Elephant. Billy was taken from his natal family in Malaysia as an infant and has been held at the Los Angeles Zoo. She also serves on the Board of Directors for The Kerulos Center and is committed to establishing the All Bull Elephants’ Sanctuary, a project of The Kerulos Center’s Elephant Liberation Program.


Print References:

  • Bradshaw, G. A. (2009). Elephants on the Edge: What Animals Teach Us About Humanity. New Haven, CT & London, UK: Yale University Press.
  • Bradshaw, G. A., Schore, A. N., Brown, J. L., Poole, J. H., & Moss, C. J. (2005). Elephant breakdown. Nature, 433(7028), 807-807.
  • Clubb, R., Rowcliffe, M., Lee, P., Mar, K. U., Moss, C. & Mason, G. J. (2008). Compromised survivorship in zoo elephants. Science, 322:1649.
  • Emmerman, K. S. (2014). Sanctuary, not remedy: The problem of captivity and the need for moral repair. In L. Gruen (Ed.), The Ethics of Captivity (pp. 213-230). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Lee, P. C. & Moss, C. J (2009). Welfare and well-being of captive elephants: Perspectives from wild elephant life histories. In D. L. Forthman, L. F. Kane, D. Hancocks, & P. F. Waldau (Eds.), An Elephant in the Room: The Science and Well-Being of Elephants in Captivity (pp. 22 – 38). North Grafton, MA: Tufts Center for Animals and Public Policy.
  • Los Angeles City Council Motion 17-0453, filed April 19, 2017
  • Meehan C.L., Mench J.A., Carlstead K., Hogan J.N. (2016). Determining Connections between the Daily Lives of Zoo Elephants and Their Welfare: An Epidemiological Approach. PLoS ONE 11(7): e0158124. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0158124
  • O’Connell, C. (2015). Elephant Don: The Politics of a Pachyderm Posse. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  • Poole, J. & Granli, P. (2009). Mind and movement: Meeting the interests of elephants. In D. L. Forthman, L. F. Kane, D. Hancocks, & P. F. Waldau (Eds.), An Elephant in the Room: The Science and Well-Being of Elephants in Captivity (pp. 2 – 21). North Grafton, MA: Tufts Center for Animals and Public Policy.
  • Williams, C.A. (2009). Space use by Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) in Rajaji National Park, North West India: Implications for elephants held in captivity. In D. L. Forthman, L. F. Kane, D. Hancocks, & P. F. Waldau (Eds.), An Elephant in the Room: The Science and Well-Being of Elephants in Captivity (pp.39 – 51). North Grafton, MA: Tufts Center for Animals and Public Policy.


Winn A
Winn A5 months ago


Sophie A
Sophie A5 months ago

thanks for this

Jeff I
Jeff I5 months ago

Animals do not belong in captivity period. Free them all and preserve the land to allow them to survive.

Marty P
Marty P5 months ago

The Director of the Zoo is a dirt bag only interested in making money and could care less about Billy's well being. Political intervention is Billy's only hope make it an election issue.

silja salonen
silja salonen5 months ago

peace and kindness ... please allow humanity to encourage the release of Billy the Elelphant

Angela K
Angela K5 months ago

Petition already signed & shared

Ruth S
Ruth S5 months ago


danii p
danii p5 months ago


danii p
danii p5 months ago


danii p
danii p5 months ago