The Elephants of Asia exhibit opened at the LA Zoo this past week. I volunteered for one of the morning VIP previews (delicious mango lassi yogurt parfaits and cardamom french toast, plus free coloring books!), and then had a chance to fully explore the exhibit this weekend, albeit in the pouring rain, and it's fantastic. Many years in the making, it's wonderful to finally have this huge section of the zoo open and accessible, and to see our three elephants happily exploring their new home.
Billy (the bull) loves the waterfall, and seems to be constantly on the move around the enclosure, checking everything out. It's amazing to see him trekking along in the distance from across the enclosure, and absolutely awe inspiring to see him suddenly come around a corner, his massive form and impressive trunk and tusks filling up your field of vision. I've never been to Asia, but I think this exhibit must capture a little bit of what it would be like to encounter an elephant in the wild. It allows him the dignity and stimulation to thrive, and us the honor of being able to study him and enjoy his presence.
Tina and Jewel, the two females, also seem very happy, and I think it's awesome that they were rescued from a circus, and now have the chance to live in an expansive home where many people are devoted to taking excellent care of them. They've been together for 30 years, and are very close friends. It's so endearing to see them leaning against each other, caressing each other with their trunks (even entwining their trunks together), and making little squeaks of pleasure as they rub their thick hides against the elephant barn.
Like anyone who cares about animals at all, I have mixed feelings about zoos. Bad zoos are an abomination and should be shut down. It goes without saying that circuses are cruel. But a quality zoo can be an amazing thing. They provide happy and healthy homes for their animals, many of whom have never known life in the wild, and many others who have been rescued from circuses, or private owners who were arrogant enough to think they could keep a chimpanzee or tiger as a pet. They offer visitors a chance to see and learn about animals that they may never have the chance to see in the flesh otherwise. Sure, natural history museums are one alternative, and there are plenty of fabulous nature programs on TV, but there's nothing to replace the experience of witnessing a living creature -- at least one that's happy and thriving in semi-natural state. Plus, and this is the biggest thing of all, any self-respecting zoo these days is heavily involved in conservation. This means breeding and preserving a healthy captive population, but it also means educating the public and fund-raising to support a plethora of conservation programs in the wild. And that's the primary message of the new elephant exhibit. There are more Asian elephants in captivity in North America than there are left in the wild. The zoo's exhibit tells the stories of elephants in India, China, Cambodia, and Thailand, and how their past and future is integrally tied to the humans who share their habitat.
In the other sphere of my life, "India's Fabled City: The Art of Courtly Lucknow" opened at LACMA last week. There are amazing works of art, including opulent miniatures, glittering jewels, detailed panoramas, gorgeous metalwork, pistols and scabards, and of course, lots of elephants! I confess, I don't know that much about Indian art, but I'll soon learn! My two worlds are colliding, in a good way. 2011 will be the Year of the Elephant!