LA Zoo elephant exhibit trial date set

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(CNS) – A judge said today a non-jury trial will begin next Monday in a lawsuit filed by the late actor Robert Culp and another animal advocate over the alleged mistreatment and death of elephants at the Los Angeles Zoo, but predicted the litigation will not end with his ruling.

“No matter who wins, this case is going to the Court of Appeal,” Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John Segal said during a final status conference.

Shutting down the exhibit was the aim of the lawsuit filed in August 2007 by Aaron Leider, a real estate agent, and Culp, who died in March 2010. The suit alleging animal abuse is based on a “taxpayer waste” statute, which authorizes injunctive relief in situations involving unlawful conduct, government waste or injury to public property, in this case, the elephants.

Leider is asking Segal to close the exhibit — a $42 million expansion was completed after the suit was filed — or as an alternative “enjoin specific elephant husbandry practices which injure and kill elephants in violation of both federal and state laws.”

Deputy City Attorney John Carvalho has denied the elephant abuse and taxpayer waste allegations. During today’s hearing, he argued that Casselman should not be allowed to present evidence of allegedly abusive actions dating back to the original elephant exhibit’s inception in 1966. He said what allegedly happened many years ago is not relevant today. “I just want some control on the case so it doesn’t became a political soapbox,” Carvalho said.

However, Segal said time will tell whether knowing events from the past will assist him in making his decision. “It’s an easy question for me to answer,” Segal said. “I don’t know.” Segal also said that as of now, he will not visit the exhibit, but may change his mind later depending on the evidence he hears during the trial.

In May 2008, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John Shepard Wiley dismissed the lawsuit, but in September 2009, a three-judge panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal ordered the case sent back for trial. The state Supreme Court declined to hear the city’s appeal of the panel’s decision.

In 2010, Wiley denied Leider’s request for an injunction that would have stopped the opening of the elephant exhibit expansion. Segal was given the case after Wiley was reassigned to another courthouse.

The zoo currently has three Asian pachyderms. Fourteen elephants have died there since the 1966 exhibit opened, Casselman said.

One Los Angeles Zoo elephant, Tara, died in December 2004 of arthritis, and another, Gita, died in June 2006 of systemic infections due to arthritis, just after the City Council was assured that she was in good health.

Animal advocates contend the exhibit is too small for the animals to live without injury and ongoing suffering. Casselman alleges in his court papers that the elephants are “being injured daily” and that their treatment violates the Penal Code and the Code of Federal Regulations regarding zoos. “Thus, the continued expenditure of taxpayer funds to perpetuate such illegal actions is waste.”

According to the city, the new exhibit provides elephants 3.8 acres to roam. But Casselman said that while the public has more than 6.5 acres to explore in the elephant exhibit area, the elephants are limited to just over two acres of ground to walk on, divided into four separate pens.

Planters and other greenery inside the elephant exhibit makes the pens look larger, but they are all surrounded by nearly invisible electrified wire preventing any access by the elephants, Casselman said.

Although the zoo claims the exhibit is the best possible place for the elephants, Leider asserts that the city and zoo officials could have saved $42 million and transferred the animals to a proposed Los Angeles zoo elephant sanctuary that could have been located on over 100 acres of donated land within the city limits.

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