051: New Zoo Review

Stella Case No. 051, Originally Published: 29 May 2003

The Los Angeles Zoo announced plans to move “Ruby,” an African elephant, to the Knoxville, Tenn., Zoo so it could be with other African elephants and be a role model for other females on how to be a good mother. But Catherine Doyle, 46, filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court asking for an order to prohibit the zoo from moving Ruby. She says that would separate her from “Gita,” an Asian elephant Ruby has lived with for 16 years. (African and Asian elephants are different species of pachyderm.)

billy lazoo 300x200 - 051: New Zoo Review
Billy, an Asian elephant; more on him below. (Photo: Los Angeles Zoo)

“We believe there is a special relationship between the two, and we think they should stay together the rest of their lives,” says Doyle’s attorney, Yael Trock, who specializes in personal injury litigation. Trock also says the elephants “should be kept in the city because we are the taxpayers and residents of the city and we should be the ones enjoying seeing them.”

So on the one hand, the two elephants are special friends and it would be cruel to separate them, but on the other hand they’re taxpayer-purchased property that should benefit only the people who paid for them. In lawsuit circles it apparently makes perfectly good sense to argue out of both sides of your mouth.

Here’s an idea: how about letting professional zoologists decide how best to protect the species under their care — otherwise known as “doing their jobs”? Or do we really insist that do-gooders and courts should countermand every trivial decision made by competent professionals?


  • “Suit Seeks to Keep Elephant at L.A. Zoo,” Los Angeles Times, 15 May 2003

Case Status

The L.A. Zoo did move Ruby, but she didn’t fit in with the elephants in Knoxville. “Our goal was to incorporate her with a herd, not just send her to another location,” says the Zoo’s General Manager, John Lewis. “When that was not going to happen, we decided to bring her back.”

Catherine Doyle took credit for that, saying her lawsuit “pushed the zoo’s hand” — and didn’t drop her case.

Southern California’s Voice for the Animals Foundation got into the act too, as a “major supporter” of the lawsuit. On the other hand, VFTA had been fighting since the 1990s, “holding press conferences and campaigning to close the Zoo’s inadequate elephant exhibit.” So as the zoo was put into a position of perhaps winding down their exhibit, the lawsuit made sure they couldn’t do so. Yeah, that’s smart.

L.A. Mayor James Hahn ordered that the zoo get Ruby back, and she was returned in 2004, which mooted the lawsuit. Gita died in 2006, at 48, leaving Ruby alone.

The retired Circus Vargas elephant was finally shipped away from the zoo for one last time in mid 2007 — to the Performing Animal Welfare Society elephant sanctuary in San Andreas, Calif. Entertainer Bob Barker contributed $300,000 to pay for Ruby’s care there.

The zoo was left with one elephant, an Asian bull named Billy. In late 2010, the L.A. Zoo moved him into a new $42 million, 3.8-acre “Elephants of Asia” habitat, and brought in a pair of Asian elephants, Tina and Jewel, from San Diego to round out the exhibit. Since then, the exhibit has expanded to 6.56 acres, and Shaunzi, a female, was brought in from Fresno in 2017.

Sources: “Ruby the Elephant Heading Back to L.A.”, Associated Press, 20 July 2004; “Former Zoo, Circus Elephant Ruby Dies at Sanctuary”, Associated Press, 31 March 2011.

My 2020 Thoughts on the Case

I love elephants, Asian and African. The Asians are endangered, and the Africans are “vulnerable” …and all dwindling in number in the wild due to poaching and habitat loss. I’m glad there are organizations conserving them in the wild as well as in captivity, the latter “as long as” they’re in adequate habitats, which are horrifically expensive to maintain. It sounds like the L.A. Zoo is at least trying to do it right despite repeated interference.


The suit against Oreo cookies (but only in California, and only those sold to children) that was quickly withdrawn after enough publicity was generated was behind it, of course brought comments. A representative sample:

Chris in Maryland: “Is there some human alive who actually thinks that Oreos are healthy food items? Do we actually need some stupid lawsuit to alert us that these are not on the same plane as, say, broccoli?”

Michelle in Florida: “After reading the Oreo story to my husband, we both decided the best way to conclude that story was to open the pack of Oreos we had in the pantry and eat them.”

Moira in California: “Stephen Joseph certainly used the system for his own gain. His actions are reprehensible and serve no useful purpose for humanity. [However,] you wrote ‘Food manufacturers should provide healthy food, and have a duty to ensure consumers are informed of all aspects of a food’s nutrition so they can make intelligent decisions about what they eat.’ I disagree. While I believe food manufacturers should ensure customers are informed about the foods they are buying/consuming, I don’t believe any company necessarily has the obligation to ensure the food is ‘healthy’. Consumers have the obligation to keep themselves informed on what they are putting in their bodies.”

What I meant by “healthy” is that the foods “should” be pure, and “should” use reasonable ingredients. Oreos are a good example; obviously they’re far from “health food,” but if trans fats are as bad for people as the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine says they are, then Kraft “should” work on a change. And in fact I’ve heard they are looking at dropping trans-fats from Oreos.

Derek in New Mexico: “I can’t figure out what Joseph and his alleged group got out of this. Is it just an ego trip, or did he/they find some way gain something tangible from all the publicity? Is there a second level to this sleazy story? We may never know, but I sense that there is more to the story, and it might be even uglier than what you have dug up so far.”

I consider publicity to BE an end product. (I’d really love some for TSA right about now; I’d like the distribution to grow faster than it is.) As for Joseph’s intentions, I don’t know — it could be he’s doing a real public service with his non-profit group. But to get the group publicity by abusing the courts most definitely isn’t reasonable.

- - -

Email Subscriptions

No new cases are being published, so please don’t try to submit cases.

While there are no new cases coming, all of the previously published cases are returning to this site over time. You can subscribe to notifications as those classic cases are posted, scheduled for Mondays and Thursdays. Click here for a Stella Awards subscribe form.

Meanwhile, my flagship email publication This is True does continue to come out with new stories every week. It’s “Thought-Provoking Entertainment” like Stella, but uses weird-but-true news items as its vehicle for social commentary. It is the oldest entertainment newsletter online — weekly since 1994. Click here for a This is True subscribe form.

1 Comment on “051: New Zoo Review

  1. This story about the elephant reminds me of the controversy regarding the elephant in our local zoo here in Edmonton (Canada).

    Short version (TL;DR): activists, including Bob Barker, got involved demanding they move the elephant despite veterinarians’ recommendations against moving the elephant.

    … Lucy’s condition was reviewed by an independent veterinarian. At the time the vet said Lucy was suffering from dental and respiratory issues even then, but if the zoo chose to move her she was “highly likely” to “potentially” die en route to a sanctuary.

    I think they even filed a lawsuit (which failed) to try to force the move.

    As you said, “Here’s an idea: how about letting professional zoologists decide how best to protect the species under their care — otherwise known as “doing their jobs”?”


Leave a Comment