An Elephant Man

Chris DeRose is an actor — he did an early Aaron Spelling series called San Pedro Beach Bums, some CHiPs episodes, stuff like that — but on Tuesday, May 3, when he chained himself to the fence of the elephant exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo in protest of the zoo’s elephant care, he wasn’t fooling around. DeRose, and his friends at Last Chance for Animals, a nonprofit organization he founded in 1985 that runs out of a couple of rundown offices overlooking the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, mean business. They’re demanding that the three elephants at the L.A. Zoo be moved to an elephant sanctuary, and have even offered to pick up the cost of the transfer to either of the two sanctuaries that exist in this country. They also want to see the zoo’s exhibit permanently closed. And DeRose is asking for a public debate with zoo director John Lewis. “John Lewis is a cocky, pompous guy,” said DeRose, standing outside the zoo’s main gates a half-hour after he was escorted from the property. “He’s gonna do it his way, and nobody is gonna tell him what to do. I’m not telling him what to do. I’m asking. And if he doesn’t do what we’re asking, then you know what? We’ll start putting the pressure on. As taxpayers. I had a meeting with John Lewis, and he said, ‘The elephants are much better off here than they are in the wild.’ I asked him, ‘How do you explain that they walk 30, 40 miles a day in the wild?’ He said, ‘They’re looking for food.’ The man is either completely ignorant of elephants or he’s just blatantly lying to the people. It’s one of the two, ’cause what he’s saying is not accurate at all,” continues DeRose, who recently returned from a trip to Africa, where he was married near a herd of elephants in their natural habitat. DeRose, who often plays tough guys, with his thick New York accent, and is also a former cop, onetime Hard Copy reporter and a black belt in karate, has been arrested 12 times for animal-cruelty protests. But he wasn’t arrested today. Nearby, cops sat around in their cars, and there were a couple of local-news outlets. “The zoo security came up to me,” DeRose explained, holding a pair of cut plastic handcuffs in his fist. “They were very polite. ‘Hey, Chris, how you doing?’ They took me back to the office, tried to get my handcuffs off and escorted me out the gate. The security guys here are wonderful, I wish the administration was just as nice.” Elephant controversy at the L.A. Zoo is nothing new. Two years ago, another concerned Los Angeles resident, Catherine Doyle, who frequented the elephant exhibit with her then–4-year-old son, sued the zoo in an attempt to stop the separation of two female elephants, Ruby and Gita, who lived together in the exhibit. Doyle, arguing that moving Ruby would be detrimental to both elephants, who, in her opinion, had formed a deep bond, cited a standard rule in compassionate elephant care in which elephants in captivity are thought to need a best friend. The animals, who are incredibly social in the wild — traveling in herds and carrying the bones of their dead to mourn — need visual, auditory, olfactory and, preferably, physical contact with other elephants. After Doyle lost the first round of her lawsuit, Ruby was sent to the Knoxville Zoo in Tennessee as part of a massive breeding program spearheaded by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. But Doyle persisted in the courts, and Ruby was returned 19 months later after she failed to adapt to her new environment. In the eyes of many activists, the case proved that taxpayers, who legally “own” the animals at the zoo, can take a stand if they feel the zoo’s treatment of the animals is unfit. It’s this “taxpayer logic” that DeRose uses to justify putting pressure on zoo director Lewis. And yet he doesn’t agree with Doyle that Ruby belongs back at the zoo. In line with his slogan “Elephant sanctuaries, not captivity,” he would have preferred it if Ruby had been sent directly to a sanctuary. He points out that Ruby and Gita are currently away from public view and separated by a barrier. “They are living in a space smaller than my office,” he complained. Perhaps the most visible situation currently at the zoo involves Billy, the Los Angeles Zoo’s only bull elephant, and the only elephant presently on display after the recent euthanization of the third female elephant, Tara. Bulls are difficult to handle, even in the wild, which is why most are housed alone in captivity. The females, who rule the matriarchal herds, usually separate themselves from the aggressive males after they reach adolescence. Billy, who arrived in Los Angeles at the age of 4, almost constantly bobs his head up and down, and has for years. Tagged by activists as “zoochotic” behavior, the activity is often misunderstood by many zoo goers as a form of play or exercise. Billy has been alone for 16 years and has never been out of his exhibit. “Come on! Enough is enough,” DeRose cries. “It’s the equivalent of you being in solitary confinement. I came down here today out of frustration.” And yet, depending on the turn of this week’s mayoral election, DeRose may soon find a friend in City Hall. On Friday, mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa announced that if he were elected he would do all he could to see the zoo’s elephant exhibit permanently closed and its three elephants relocated to a sanctuary. (This page went to press before election results were in.) If that happened, DeRose says, Los Angeles would become the tenth city within the last year to shut down an elephant exhibit, including San Francisco, Detroit and Chicago. (Just this week, activists called for a criminal investigation at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, which experienced three controversial elephant deaths in the past six months and is now under fire for its treatment of other animals, including a rare breed of monkey.) Whether Villaraigosa is elected or not, DeRose isn’t backing down anytime soon. He promises to protest at the zoo on a regular basis from here on out. This is a man who himself lived in an orphanage as a child, while his mother battled cancer. A man who has been a big brother to more than 25 boys. A man who, as an activist, once chased dog and cat thieves in a high-speed car chase up and down California all through the night, ultimately leading to the first major bust and state and federal court victory against registered class-B pet dealers under the Animal Welfare Act (the domestic-pet theft rings sell stolen cats and dogs to medical-research labs at a high premium). As far as DeRose is concerned, until he sees every elephant currently within the zoo system relocated to sanctuaries, he will continue chaining himself to cages. And, from his track record and the title of his autobiography, In Your Face, it appears we can believe him.


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