Judge issues temporary restraining order against the Los Angeles Zoo

9/28/2010, 5 p.m.

LOS ANGELES - A judge has issued a temporary restraining order preventing any new elephants at the Los Angeles Zoo until a hearing is held next month, according to a lawyer for the man who filed the taxpayer lawsuit.

Attorney David Casselman, who represents Aaron Leider, said the directive handed down by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John Shepard Wiley is good through Oct. 25, when he and Leider will ask that no additional elephants be brought to the zoo until after a Nov. 2 trial is completed.

The facility currently has one Asian pachyderm, Billy, who is in his early 20s.

In the lawsuit filed in August 2007, Leider, a real estate agent, and actor Robert Culp--who died in March--alleged the zoo withheld medical care, confined pachyderms in too small an area and used bull hooks and electric shocks to control them.

They also argued that a larger exhibit would be a waste of taxpayer money.

Wiley dismissed the lawsuit in May 2008, saying the issues should be decided in a legislative rather than a judicial forum.

But last September, a three-justice panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal overturned Wiley's dismissal, ordering the case sent back for trial on whether maintaining elephants at the zoo violates statutes protecting taxpayers, as well as any penal code sections concerning alleged abuse of animals.

The state Supreme Court declined to hear the city's appeal.

Casselman states in his court papers that he has heard zoo officials plan to bring in up to four elephants just before the trial begins.

"Such moves and acclimation to a new facility are stressful and need not occur exactly at the start of trial,'' Casselman's court papers state.

Meanwhile, the City Attorney's Office is again asking Wiley to dismiss Leider's case, saying in court papers that he has failed to state a valid claim of a waste of taxpayer money by the city in building the exhibit. City attorneys say even the Court of Appeal ruled that the only issue to be tried is whether the city made an illegal expenditure.

City attorneys also want Wiley to limit or bar altogether observations of Billy and inspections of the elephant exhibit by experts hired by Leider.

They say the inspections are not relevant to the lawsuit and would create a burden on the staff.

Zoo spokesman Jason Jacobs said the exhibit, called Elephants of Asia, is scheduled to open in December. He said there will be additional elephants at the zoo by then, but does not know how many or when they will arrive.

The City Council approved the exhibit in 2006 and reaffirmed its decision in January 2009 to continue construction and reject a proposal to move Billy to a sanctuary.

In addition, the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association agreed to donate additional funds to lower the city's debt payments.

Animal rights advocates have been vocal opponents of the zoo exhibit, insisting that it would still be too small to allow elephants to roam freely.

They say the average male elephant weighs about 14,000 pounds, and standing still for extended periods of time could cause the animals to develop foot disease, arthritis and other ailments resulting in premature death.

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.

City attorneys state in court papers that the zoo has been exhibiting elephants since 1966. They also argue that Billy has nearly 9,000 square feet on which to wander, is watched over by four full-time keepers and five full-time veterinarians, is exercised daily and is never disciplined because zoo management prohibits abusive treatment.

Bill Hetherman| City News Service