Elephant death sparks protests of LA Zoo exhibit

By Kelsey Ngante

One of two surviving elephants at the LA Zoo stands in its habitat. Photo by Kelsey Ngante.

The LA Zoo was once home to four Asian elephants, but in January 2023, staff were forced to euthanize its elephant Jewel, then put down Shaunzi in January 2024. 

With two deaths in a single year, animal activists are calling for the closure of the exhibit.

At a January 6, 2024 evening vigil, activists lined the LA Zoo entrance with candles, canvas posters, and decorative tombstones. 

“It had been our hope that [Shaunzi] would have had the chance to go to a sanctuary … where she could have lived with more space, with more choice, with other elephants, and with soft ground under her feet,” said activist Kiersten Cluster.

Cluster is with Elephant Guardians of Los Angeles, one of several groups advocating for the release of the remaining LA Zoo elephants to sanctuaries. Their signs read, “LA Zoo: an elephant graveyard” and “#FreeBilly,” in reference to the 39-year-old bull elephant who has been at the zoo since 1989.

Heather Wilson, a protester wearing a black funeral veil, claimed Billy and the other elephants at the zoo had been exhibiting signs of physical and psychological distress. 

“We want them to be in a natural, normal habitat. And these elephants here, they bob, they sway, they weave. … It's horrible. It’s embarrassing to have this in our city,” said Wilson. 

Animal rights activists have challenged the LA Zoo’s elephant care for at least 15 years. In 2016, one activist sued the LA Zoo and the City of Los Angeles for elephant abuse in a case that went to the Supreme Court of California. While the court noted that the elephants were not “thriving,” ultimately they did not find the city’s conduct to be “abusive.”

The LA Zoo categorically rejects claims that their elephants are not well cared for. Zoo officials say the activists are misinformed and mischaracterizing the elephant program. In a statement to KCRW, they called the health of their animals a top priority, adding that they provide “the highest standard of care.” 

Currently, the elephant exhibit is under construction as the zoo builds a new shade structure for the herd. On a recent visit, only one elephant was out, and it did seem to be bobbing its head and swaying. 

But that doesn’t necessarily indicate psychological distress, says Dr. Joshua Plotnik, an elephant biologist at Hunter College in New York.

“I don’t think you can just look at an elephant and say they have a cognitive impairment.”

He adds that their head movements are common in captivity. “It is likely indicative of an animal that does not have as much natural movement ability as they would in the wild, which makes sense – they’re in a zoo.”

Plotnik is also skeptical that moving an elephant from a zoo to a sanctuary is always helpful.

“[Sanctuaries] can sound like a really good thing, but sometimes it’s not. To take an elephant and move them to a completely strange social situation can actually be very stressful,” he says.

The likelihood that Billy the elephant will move to a sanctuary is slim in any case.

LA City Council oversees the zoo, and over the past 15 years, former Councilmember Paul Koretz penned multiple motions for Billy’s release, the most recent two years ago. 

His colleague Bob Blumenfield seconded that motion and says he’d support moving the elephant. “I would love to see Billy at a sanctuary,” Blumenfield said in an interview. “Billy has certainly put in his time serving Angelenos in the zoo. I mean, Billy has been there for 35 years.”

According to Blumenfield, Shaunzi’s death reopens the conversation, but his proposal to move Billy doesn’t have the full support of the council.

“It’s technically still in committee. There’s a lot of folks with strong opinions on all sides of this issue. So it’s not a motion that has a clear path forward,” says Blumenfield. 



Kelsey Ngante