As the L.A. Zoo celebrates its 50th anniversary, top officials talk about Billy the elephant and zoos’ evolving roles in a rapidly changing world.

The Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens is in the midst of its 50th-anniversary celebration, which runs through October. And there’s plenty to celebrate, according to the two Arroyoland folk who know most about the 113-acre zoo and its 1,100 animal residents representing 250 different species.

Zoo Director John Lewis, who lives in La Crescenta, is in charge of ensuring that the animals and their habitats are in tip-top shape and that the zoo’s 1.8 million annual visitors are inspired and enlightened by what they see. Lewis also oversees the zoo’s programs to help preserve the world’s endangered species. La Caňada Flintridge’s Connie Morgan is president of the private, nonprofit Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association (GLAZA), which raises funds that enable the zoo to attain its goals in animal care, conservation and visitor satisfaction. Both Lewis and Morgan (see page 9) started work at the zoo about 14 years ago and both say they are ardent proponents of well-run zoos in general, and of the L.A. Zoo in particular.

Zoos such as L.A.’s, they say, have evolved in many ways over the past few years. Many habitats have been enhanced so that the animals are healthier and happier than ever before, and visitors are educated about endangered wildlife and the need to preserve it. And the L.A. Zoo has become an important asset in global research into conservation of endangered species. It allocates funds, expertise and staff to conservation projects worldwide and has had great success with important local projects. By the 1980s, the population of California condors had sunk to about 22. Today, thanks to the zoo’s program to breed condors in captivity and introduce them into the wild, there are more than 420 condors, half of them already living in the wild.

Other beneficiaries of the zoo’s conservation programs include peninsular pronghorns — elegant hoofed animals with branched horns, which first appeared in the Pleistocene age and resemble a blend of deer and goat. Once numbering in the thousands, they lived in deserts and semi-deserts of Baja California until their habitats were destroyed and manmade barriers prevented them from finding water and shelter along what was once their natural migration route. The L.A. Zoo, in concert with partners, has been able to breed pronghorns and steadily increase the population, which, from a low of 50, now numbers in the hundreds. The zoo’s breeding herd is part of a longterm Species Survival Plan for these animals.

Those are just two of many behind-the-scenes programs in which the zoo participates while promoting its primary function of enabling the public to meet and interact with extraordinary animals from around the globe. That traditional role of zoos has become controversial here and around the country in the era of animal-rights activists who say it is unethical and inhumane to remove animals from their natural environments and hold them captive for the entertainment of humans.

In April, L.A. City Councilmember Paul Koretz filed a motion to remove 30-year-old Billy the elephant from the L.A. Zoo, where he’s been a lifelong resident. That was in response to animal-rights advocates who claimed that Billy’s living conditions are isolated and restrictive, and that he shows signs of distress. The motion seeks to relocate Billy to a wild animal sanctuary, where he can roam freely and socialize. Similar controversies have arisen around the country, as rare and endangered zoo animals become physically or emotionally ill due to allegedly inappropriate living conditions, or are killed when they escape or are involved in accidents involving humans. In May 2016, the teenage gorilla, Harambe, was shot at the Cincinnati Zoo when a 4-year-old boy fell into his enclosure. Although few would disagree with the action that may have saved the boy’s life, activists also argued that Harambe was one more endangered and innocent captive creature who died through no fault of his own. After the film Blackfish was released in 2013, documenting severe distress experienced by a 12,000-pound orca in captivity at Sea World, ticket sales plummeted and intense public pressure led the park to end its orca program. A campaign by activists spotlighting the inhumane conditions endured by performing circus animals aided in the demise of many animal-oriented circuses, including 136-year-old Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, which ceased operation in May.

Of course, zoos don’t require animals to perform, and most take excellent care of their menageries. But public attitudes are shifting as research focuses on animal intelligence and cognition, animal rights and ecological imperatives.

Could zoos someday become as obsolete as animal-oriented circuses? There are compelling arguments both for and against the concept of zoos, and we asked Lewis and Morgan to discuss both the zoo’s achievements and challenges.

Arroyo Monthly: What are some of the achievements you’re proud of since you’ve been at the zoo?

John Lewis: We’ve spent about $180 million improving the zoo with voter-approved tax money as well as privately raised money from GLAZA. We’ve greatly improved our habitats for our great apes — gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees — and we also have a fantastic facility for our elephants and a brand new amphibian facility, an updated bird show so we can teach people about how birds live and how they fly. We have a new front entry with visitor services and education classrooms and a multipurpose theater. There have been a lot of physical improvements for both our visitors and our animals, and a host of conservation projects all over the world. We are educating the public about the lives of these animals and the threats they face as their natural habitats disappear, and what needs to be done about it.

Connie Morgan: GLAZA is proud to have helped bring all those projects John just mentioned to fruition. We’ve raised a great deal of money for construction of the habitats for elephants, the great apes, the new education center. We’ve funded much new medical equipment for the zoo’s state-of-the-art Gottlieb Animal Health and Conservation Center, helped them secure new laser equipment, portable ultrasounds, all the new technology that is critical to ensure our animals have the best care possible. We’re currently working on a new park at the zoo for all types of corporate events that will bring new revenue so we can continue updating everything needed for our animals.

AM: Both of you mentioned elephants, and right now your elephant Billy is in the news, because a city councilperson is requesting his removal to a sanctuary. I notice there’s a full page on your zoo website about Billy, explaining why he should stay at the zoo. Can you talk about that?

JL: I’m happy to talk about that. The reason he should stay at the zoo is because he gets excellent care and has plenty of space and caretakers that love him and take excellent care of him. The misinformation being spread is by groups who are trying to shut down elephant programs all over the country. They focus on an individual and try to give people concerns they really should not be concerned about. Billy is doing great. The lawsuit that’s being talked about now was actually filed six years ago, and we won it. But the judge added some injunctions to his decision, which aren’t onerous for us but the critics keep watching and periodically harass us to say we’re not doing what we should, and we have to file a court report to prove that we are. We have actually filed an appeal through the state Supreme Court asking that those injunctions be dropped, just so we don’t continue to be harassed. Billy and all our elephants are doing just great.

AM: Can you talk about changes in the zoo’s operations since you took over?

JL: There are two main areas that come to mind. First, engaging our staff to engage the visitors. I tell staff all the time that this zoo is really for people as well as the animals. People are the ones that will make a difference for wildlife, and all the challenges that wildlife is facing right now.

So we need to engage visitors and help them understand what’s going on and help them care about the animals, not just come here to look at them.

The other thing that’s changing: This zoo has done a lot of conservation over its life, but a lot of that has been financially supporting [outside] investigators. This fall, GLAZA is actually raising money to hire a full-time conservation biologist for the zoo. That individual’s initial responsibility will be to identify hotspots around the world where animals are being threatened, as well as other conservation issues that need resolving, and then put together a team of individuals that will include zoo employees and professors and academics and researchers around the world to solve that problem. It’s called the Species Conservation Action Network [SCAN], and we’ll be scanning the conservation horizon looking at how we can help.

AM: So this person will spearhead a global group ?

JL: That’s correct. And the group members will change, depending on what issue it is tackling.

CM: Something John should be very proud of is that our zookeepers and curators today are extremely talented, knowledgeable and educated folks in how to care for animals. They are now becoming critical to global conservation needs.

JL: Connie is referring to the fact that more and more of what we do in our zoos has direct application to wildlife. Unfortunately, with so much loss of wild habitats, a lot of the parks are looking like big zoos because there is not that much space left in the wild for the animals. The techniques that we use to keep animals alive and provide good health, and even for breeding and reproduction, are now being used more and more in the field by wildlife biologists. And we are able to send some of our experts to help them use those techniques in environments around the globe. We’ve sent several people to Africa; our keepers and curators have recently gone several times to China.

AM: Ms. Morgan, in the years you’ve been GLAZA president, what shifts have you seen in community response?

CM: The greatest shift is that we’ve been able to build a solid and consistent base of financial support for the zoo for the long term. We have donors who stay very loyal to the zoo, who understand the zoo’s mission and how important it is to the Los Angeles community and to the wildlife community across the world. We’re continuing to build on that for the future. That’s one reason SCAN is so important to us. Our board of trustees for GLAZA wanted to do something very special for the zoo’s 50th anniversary, so we committed to funding this project which we can take into the next 50 to 100 years, using all the talent and expertise we have here to help solve global conservation issues.

AM: There’s so much technology that now lets us get up close and personal with animals living in the wild, and we can observe them closely without going to a zoo. Added to ethical concerns, do you think zoos are becoming less necessary and less relevant?

JL: I think zoos are, unfortunately, going to become even more relevant than ever before. A large portion of the world’s population has moved and continues to move away from rural areas and into cities, and away from wildlife. They’ve lost their connection with wildlife, and zoos and aquariums provide those connections. The films and documentaries are all good, but they complement the experience of the zoo, they cannot replace it.

CM: I would agree that zoos connect people with wildlife in a way nothing else can. You could compare it with concerts. You have to see things live.