Elephants in the Santa Barbara Zoo may soon have to pack their trunks and move, pending an upcoming decision by the California State Legislature.

On April 25, a California Assembly committee passed the Elephant Protection Act, which will go to the Assembly Appropriations Committee for approval May 10. The bill, CA AB 3027, would require California’s zoos to expand their elephant enclosures to at least five acres and to stop using certain elephant handling tools, or risk losing their elephant exhibits altogether. Assemblyman Lloyd Levine, a Democrat from Van Nuys, authored the bill with backing from the Sacramento-based Animal Protection Institute. The Santa Barbara Zoo currently houses its Asian elephants, Sujatha and Little Mac, in a 13,000-square-foot exhibit, which is less than a third of an acre, Animal Protection Institute Media Relations Officer Zibby Wilder said.

Wilder said the legislation is not meant to close down elephant programs at the zoos, although it could potentially force some zoos to get ride of their animals.

“The intent is to keep elephants in zoos, [but] if you cannot properly care for the animals you should not be allowed to keep them,” Wilder said. “Zoos would have plenty of time – until 2009 – [to meet the requirements].”

Richard Block, CEO and director of the Santa Barbara Zoo, said he thinks the bill is irrational. He said the Santa Barbara Zoo does not have the resources to expand their elephant exhibit.

“The bill doesn’t make sense, from many angles,” Block said. “[There is a] space requirement of five acres, [but] there is no criteria for how they come up with five acres. It’s arbitrary – there’s no science behind it.”

The Oakland Zoo is the only zoo in California that currently meets the size requirements proposed in the bill, Block said. He said he calculated that the proposed bill would put over 30 captive elephants out of their homes because many zoos across California could not provide the extra space required to keep their elephants.

“[This] would mean there would be 34 elephants essentially homeless,” Block said. “Not only does [the legislation] not say where they should go, there’s no guarantee they will go someplace that is better than the place they’re leaving. Who pays for all this? You take them away from me, and now you want me to pay to ship them somewhere, and pay for the [upkeep] while I don’t have access to them.”

Elliot Katz, founder of the national animal rights group In Defense of Animals, said there are two elephant sanctuaries in the U.S. capable of housing the elephants that could be put out of their zoos. One sanctuary is in Tennessee, and one is in California.

“The sanctuary in Tennessee [in the past] has offered to cover the cost of transportation [and care],” Katz said. “It certainly has enough room for all the elephants in California. It’s a 2000-acre sanctuary.”

The bill would also ban the use of some tools commonly used by elephant handlers, such as bull hooks and chains, Wilder said.

“It’s an ongoing care issue, and veterinarians and elephant experts agree it is an issue,” Wilder said. “Putting them in tiny enclosures and hitting them with sticks and chaining them to walls is not the way to care for elephants.”

Katz, a veterinarian, said the health of the elephants at the Oakland Zoo, where the elephant enclosures already meet the requirements put forth in the proposed bill, proves that the bill is good for the elephants.

“I think probably because the elephants at the Oakland Zoo are doing OK [it shows the bill’s provisions will help elephants],” Katz said. “They are not showing signs of being crippled – no signs of foot disease.”

Katz said medical conditions begin to afflict elephants when their living space is limited.

“If [elephants] don’t have enough room to move around, their joints freeze up,” Katz said. “The pads of the feet are not used to being on a hard surface. They have to be on soil, not concrete [or] they have all sorts of foot problems. When the pain starts in joints and feet, they are reluctant to move, so it’s a vicious downward cycle.”

Alan Varsik, director of animal care and conservation at the Santa Barbara Zoo, said he thinks elephants’ health is not based solely on space.

“Quality of life can’t be based on number of square feet,” Varsik said. “Everyone I’ve talked to is surprised as to the depth of care we provide for the elephants. We have a fulltime veterinarian, and we provide lots of things for them to do. Enrichment is a regular component of how we care for all our animals.”

Varsik said the Santa Barbara Zoo requires some of the tools that would be banned by the proposed bill.

“We don’t use [a bull hook], but if we need to do certain medical procedures, we would need to utilize some of these tools,” Varsik said. “I can’t imagine a system which didn’t involve some sorts [of these tools]. To do it without that kind of device would be very difficult.”

The elephants in the Santa Barbara Zoo do fine without the extra space and handling restrictions that the bill proposes, Varsik said. He said the elephants at the zoo do not exhibit stereotypies, which is compulsive behavior often seen in caged animals who are bored, stressed or frustrated.

“I think we do extremely well,” Varsik said. “The behavior our elephants exhibit is very natural. It’s my opinion that we don’t see any stereotypies in our elephants, [which is] rare in zoos. A [common] stereotypy would be like a cat pacing [back and forth] in its cage.”

Aimee Andrews, a second-year anthropology major, said she recently visited the zoo and she sympathizes with the elephants.

“Whenever I see the elephants in their small enclosure, it saddens me,” Andrews said. “I wish I could just set them free. I think the enclosure is far too small for one elephant, let alone two elephants.”