Free Billy

In her beautiful and heartbreaking novel The White Bone, Barbara Gowdy tells the story of an elephant herd in Africa as it faces vanishing habitat, drought, and poachers. The story is rendered by way of characters such as Mud, She-Swaggers, and Tall-Time. They are on a quest to find the white bone, a sacred object which will lead their herd to safety. Like all nations, this one has its own way of describing things: a "flow stick" is a snake, a "sting" is a bullet, and humans are "hind-leggers."

"On their own, vehicles prefer to sleep," Mud observes, speaking of jeeps that approach the herd before predations, "but whenever a human burrows inside them they race and roar and discharge a foul odor."

What must elephants think of zoos?

"Elephants don't live in zoos," says LA City councilman Tony Cardenas, "they die in zoos." He's referring to the fact that since 1975, thirteen elephants have died in captivity at the Los Angeles Zoo. As of today there is only one elephant left. "His name is Billy," reports the Voices for the Animals Foundation, "a 21-year-old Asian Elephant who in his natural habitat would walk 20-30 miles per day with a life expectancy of 60 years. Billy stands still, bobbing his head unnaturally in a small facility, as other elephants have in the past, most of which never made it to age 20."

In 1998, the writer Deena Metzger began making pilgrimages to elephant habitat in Africa, learning to sit in council with the beleaguered pachyderms, promising them that she would look after their brothers and sisters. Last spring, she and other concerned citizens made a pilgrimage to the LA Zoo, where they gathered at Billy's enclosure and passed some time. "He was clearly traumatized," Metzger says, no doubt suffering from all manner of things, among them capture myopathy, which fells many a great, incarcerated creature.

Today, at 2:30 pm, the Los Angeles City Council is holding a hearing on a motion to close the elephant exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo and move Billy to a sanctuary. (And, yes, the proposal has celebrity proponents, including Bill Maher, Lily Tomlin, and Cher). "This is about being humane," says Cardenas, who introduced the motion and also created the city's Animal Cruelty Task Force. "Closing down the elephant exhibit and sending Billy to a sanctuary is the right thing to do. It's time for LA to join the twelve other U.S. cities that have chosen to embrace the 21st century with compassion."

For more information about the hearing, the issue, Billy, and whom to contact if you are unable to attend, click on

And, on a note of full disclosure, Deena Metzger provided an endorsement for my latest book.

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