When my daughter was a toddler (she's six now), I used to avoid the elephant's cage at the L.A. Zoo. I didn't want Madeleine to see Billy the elephant doing his sad, repetitive behaviors, and I didn't want to witness it either. Billy was going crazy in his tiny space. I had mixed feelings when the zoo announced plans to expand the elephant enclosure. Like so many people in the city, I didn't want the L.A. Zoo to have elephants at all. But yesterday we went out of our way to see the L.A. Zoo elephants on the day their new facility opened to the public. I still have mixed feelings about the ethics of caging animals who need to roam. But I have to admit the new enclosure is a vast improvement over the other, which was inhumane.
There are three Asian elephants at the zoo now, Billy, Jewel, and Tina. They have been in their new spaces for a month, though Billy only made the direct acquaintance -- through fence bars -- of Tina and Jewel about a week ago, according to docents at the site. The several-acre facility is fence-divided into different geographies, with names like Thailand, Cambodia, and India. Yesterday, Billy was in Thailand, where we saw him first taking a shower under a zoo waterfall, then engaging in some of his repetitive behavior -- throwing his head up and down and stepping backward, forward, back and forth, like the rocking motions you see sometimes in people with autism -- then he walked out of sight.