First names aside, Billy and Bill Dyer have little in common. Billy is 23; Bill is collecting social security. Billy lives inland, at Griffith Park, while Bill lives on the water, by the Venice Canals. Oh, and Billy outweighs Bill by over three tons.
Billy is the Asian elephant at the center of the ongoing, volatile debate over the future of elephants at the LA Zoo. Bill Dyer, a 15-year resident of Venice, is the regional director of the National Organization In Defense of Animals, making him one of the most prominent local voices in the battle over Billy.
The Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association (GLAZA) and its supporters, on the other hand, want Billy to stay in the city zoo, claiming that the public deserves the rare chance to see such a majestic animal in person. GLAZA has even offered to privately fund the city’s $9 million price tag on a new elephant pen if it means keeping Billy around.
“Madness! It’s crazy!,” said Dyer, 70, in response to the proposal to keep Billy in a 3.6 acre enclosure, currently under construction. Elephants in zoos typically live 30 years or less, he explained, half their natural lifespan. “It’s just not enough space, and space is very important to elephants,” said Dyer.
The most recent battle in the war for Billy took place at the Los Angeles City Hall on December 3, where Dyer and 200 others crammed into the City Council chambers. They waited anxiously for LA’s elected officials to vote on Billy’s fate. Dyer wore a large green “Free Billy” pin that spoke to his concern for the animal. But more than concerned, Dyer seemed agitated, even angry, his metallic-blue eyes brimming with indignation at the thought of keeping an elephant penned up in an inadequately-sized area.
Dyer hoped that the Council would make the humane and cost-effective choice – to halt construction on Billy’s new enclosure, and instead send him to roam around in the 70 acres of the PAWS elephant sanctuary in northern California. “But you never know,” he said. “And that’s scary.”
He rushed to find his seat when the Council turned its attention to Billy and the Zoo. The hall had the feel of a tensely partisan State of the Union Address, with supporters of rival causes split down the middle, eyeing one another with not-so-subtle glares of contempt. Left of the center aisle were Dyer and his compatriots, and to the right was the GLAZA camp, sitting in neat rows like an army battalion in identical green
Throughout the meeting, Councilors directed comments towards the crowd, alternatively eliciting raucous cheers from one side of the aisle and a simmering silence from the other. “Let’s have a big thanks for all the hard-working employees at the LA Zoo!” drew a loud round of applause from the GLAZA camp, while, “maybe if 13 elephants have died, they don’t belong in a zoo,” won cheers and hollers from Dyer and the “Free Billy” contingent.
Dyer had prepared a speech for the meeting, but City Council President Eric Garcetti motioned to close debate before allowing time for public comment. The Council, with the help of an “aye” from District 11’s own Bill Rosendahl, abruptly voted to stop construction on the new elephant enclosure and table further matters regarding Billy and the future of elephants at the LA Zoo to the Arts, Parks, Health and Aging Committee, which will take up the issues on January 24.
If, as Dyer maintains, remaining at the LA Zoo is a death sentence for Billy the elephant, then animal welfare advocates might consider the Council’s vote as a stay of execution – a half victory that leaves Billy’s long-term future in limbo. Dyer was frustrated at the outcome, but hardly discouraged. “We’re going to see this through to the bloody end,” he said, already planning to rally support for January 24. “We’ve been at this for five years and we’re not about to give up now. Not until Billy’s out of there.”