Los Angeles Zoo Director John Lewis will retire next month after 15 years at the helm, zoo officials confirmed Saturday.
Lewis’ retirement was mentioned by Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz, who joined a group of activists outside the zoo on Saturday to protest the facility’s treatment of Billy, an elephant who has lived there for most of his 30 years.
Koretz is the author a motion calling for the Zoo to release Billy to a sanctuary, which is currently under consideration by the Los Angeles City Council. The councilman has said Billy’s habitat is “unnatural” and “restricted,” and he wants the zoo’s three female elephants to have more room to move as well.
Because males and females living in captivity must be kept separate, none of the zoo’s elephants can use the exhibit’s entire space and Billy does not get the daily exercise he needs to be both physically and psychologically healthy, according to Koretz.
“For me, every day is `Free Billy Day’ in L.A. until we get him to a sanctuary,” Koretz told supporters Saturday.
The councilman said he favored Lewis’ retirement.
“Mr. Lewis has his own strong ideas about how to runt he zoo, ideas that I consider too old-school to put the welfare of the animals — specifically the elephants — at the forefront of how the facility is managed. Hopefully the mayor will conduct a search for a new director based on the kinds of progressive, animal welfare-oriented principles my office and others have strongly communicated to his staff,” Koretz continued.
“Progressive leadership at the zoo could make it possible for Billy to leave … and move to a sanctuary without continuing to drag City Council politics into the matter.”
“…After 30 years, Billy deserves to pack his trunks and head off to a great retirement at a sanctuary,” Koretz concluded.
Los Angeles Zoo officials confirmed Lewis’ upcoming retirement Saturday, but refuted Koretz’ characterization of the elephant program.
“After 15 years of leading the Los Angeles Zoo and over 43 years in the zoo profession, John Lewis is retiring at the beginning of the 2019 calendar year,” the Zoo’s statement said.
“Much has been said about the Zoo’s elephant program, including persistent misinformation and inaccuracies as it specifically relates to our male Asian elephant, Billy.
“… The L.A. Zoo opened its state-of-the-art Elephants of Asia habitat in December 2010. The largest habitat in the history of the Zoo, Elephants of Asia occupies center stage on our campus, at the very heart of the Zoo. The sprawling exhibit is 6.56 acres, with over three acres of outdoor space, deep bathing pools, a waterfall, sandy hills, varied topography, clever enrichment opportunities, and a high-tech barn capable of caring for elephants of all sizes and ages. The facility greatly exceeds the standards set out by California Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). … The Zoo was awarded AZA Accreditation for another five years beginning March 2017. In addition, the Zoo has an outstanding team of elephant care specialists, a state-of-art hospital facility and expert veterinarians that provide excellent care for all our elephants.
“We remain committed to our excellent elephant management program and to the conservation of these highly endangered animals. Animal welfare has always been, and will continue to be, our top priority and at the forefront of Zoo management.”
Lewis, 65, began his career in animal care as a zoo keeper. Before coming to Los Angeles he served as director of the John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids, Mich.