IDA sadly announces the passing of Les Schobert, a well-known zoo professional who was, for the last four years, an integral part of IDA's captive elephant campaign. Les died on October 14, 2008 after a mercifully short battle with cancer.
Throughout his 30-year zoo career, including positions as general curator of the North Carolina Zoo and Los Angeles Zoo, Les was a passionate spokesperson for the welfare of animals in captivity. He often broke with his peers in advocating for humane treatment for every animal in his charge, frequently challenging a zoo industry too often willing to sacrifice the well-being of the individual in order to propagate the species for exhibition.
Les played an important role in IDA's efforts to improve the lives of elephants living in inadequate conditions in zoos and circuses across the country. As a consultant, he lent his decades of expertise in elephant care and handling to IDA's many elephant campaigns, resulting in the successful transfer of elephants from zoos to sanctuaries, pressuring zoos into addressing elephants' complex physical and social needs, stopping the use of elephants in publicity stunts such as the "elephant in a bubble," and, most recently, halting the Dallas Zoo's plan to move the elephant Jenny to a zoo in Mexico.
Much of Les' early life was spent in zoos, where his father was a veterinarian, and where he first witnessed the inhumane treatment of elephants during training:
"I watched the training of three young Asian elephants that had arrived but were "green" meaning they hadn't been broken yet and required an experienced trainer to 'break 'em.' I sat outside the zoo building and watched as the group of men threw ropes over the elephants who screamed a mournful cry as the men hooked the ropes to a tractor and dragged them around until they finally did what they were supposed to. They were chained but were tugging on the chains. A manwould hit the elephant with a huge stick on the forehead or on the trunk and loudly shout "NO" My dad came out and I asked him what they were doing he said that they were training the elephants He told me that they had to break the elephants before they got too big or they would hurt someone when they became adults. It was the only way to control them! This was my introduction to elephants."
After graduating from the University of South Florida in 1969, Les took jobs with Busch Gardens in Florida and then at their Texas facility. At the latter, he became Curator of Mammals in 1971 and oversaw all aspects of elephant care, housing and handling.
Following that facility's closure, Les was appointed General Curator for the North Carolina Zoo in 1978, which gave him the opportunity to address his developing concerns over the welfare of two species in particular, chimpanzees and elephants, by providing more room and creating more appropriate social conditions.
One result was the construction of a large, three-acre African elephant exhibit in 1980 for five elephants. Les said, "When it opened I got a lot of criticism from my zoo colleagues about it being so big that the public could not see the animals." Despite being built 28 years ago, the exhibit remained one of the largest in the U.S. and was recently expanded again.
Another improvement was the zoo's new chimpanzee exhibit, which provided a larger and more natural space for the animals. Les was criticized by his peers for this as well because of the loss of physical control over the animals. To him, the trade-off was worth the improvements to their welfare. As Les explained, "They were all neurotic: rocking, hair-plucking, clutching to toys and blankies, feces smearing, clinging to the night cage wanting to interact with the keepers rather than the other chimpanzees, virtually none of them showed any chimpanzee characteristics." But in the exhibit their aberrant behaviors diminished and the chimpanzees began to interact with one another and demonstrate more natural behaviors.
During this period the zoo was visited by a curator from the National Zoo in Washington, DC, which held a solitary chimpanzee named Ham, the first hominid launched into sub-orbital flight in 1961. Les felt it was wrong that this individual, who had paved the way for America's space program, had been left to languish in solitary confinement at the National Zoo. Les brought Ham to the North Carolina Zoo, where, after 24 years of living alone, he was able to socialize with other chimpanzees. Les was proud that he had provided Ham a more enriched life for at least a few short years before his death.
Renowned primatologist Jane Goodall lauded Les for his work with chimpanzees, stating, "I've worked with him for many years and have a great deal of respect for his commitment to the chimpanzee as a species and his concern for individual animals."
From 1992 to 1996, Les held the position of Animal Collection Curator at the Los Angeles Zoo. Again, his responsibilities included the operation and management of the elephants at the zoo, which had a very poor history with elephants. He made drastic changes both in the elephant barn and took the elephants off their nightly chains.
Los Angeles Zoo also was the place where Les finally could no longer tolerate the disregard for the individual animal's welfare inherent in zoos. Prior to his departure from the zoo industry, he made headlines for his criticism of the zoo's "horrible record of keeping [penguins] alive" and wanted the exhibit shut down. Over a ten-year period, 44 penguins had died at the zoo. In a 1995 memo to the zoo's director, Les stated, "The penguin issue has gone beyond what is in the best interest of the birds, and I want to refocus on their welfare."
Les carried the belief that zoos must put the welfare of the individual animal first with him throughout the years, especially in his advocacy work for elephants, which he embarked on in 2003. That's when the Los Angeles Zoo announced plans to separate an elephant named Ruby from her companion of 17 years and transfer her to another zoo. The zoo shipped off Ruby anyway, but Les lent his expertise to a ground-breaking lawsuit that ultimately pressured the city into returning Ruby to Los Angeles. After more campaigning, Ruby was sent to the PAWS sanctuary in Northern California last year, where she lives on 75 acres in a natural habitat environment with other African elephants.
During his tenure in the zoo community, Les was very active in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), where he sat on the ethics board, was vice-chairman of the Wildlife Conservation Management Committee, and headed the Chimpanzee and Great Ape Taxon Advisory Group. The respect Les held amongst his zoo peers likely prompted the many calls that later came from people in the zoo industry who shared his concerns about elephants and who often provided important information.
Through his work with IDA, Les helped launch a world-wide debate over the inadequate conditions in which elephants are held in zoos. Just as intense as his opposition to the importation of elephants into zoos and circuses was Les' rejection of bullhooks and the inhumane and coercive "free contact" system to train and manage elephants.
Les strongly advocated that elephants already in captivity be provided large natural preserves, similar to The Elephant Sanctuary (TES) and PAWS, instead of tiny urban zoo exhibits where Earth's largest land mammals are suffering and dying prematurely from painful foot and joint diseases caused by lack of space. He stated:
"What TES and PAWS have done is to establish a new level of husbandry for elephants. They have raised the bar and demonstrated that elephants can be kept in huge environments it is not an unproven theory anymore. Zoos need to begin to think outside the traditional box, or in this case pen, and realize that their traditional methods are a thing of the past."
Importantly, Les helped educate the public about the elephants' plight, appearing in countless radio, television and newspaper stories, and through his opinion pieces published nationally, including in the Washington Post, Cincinnati Enquirer and Los Angeles Daily News. He also testified before city and state legislators on behalf of elephants.
For Les the elephant issue was pretty simple:
"provide the right environment and allow the animals to perform species-specific behaviors! Take what is known from the wild and apply it to their captive environments! It is an issue of providing a good quality of life for the animals that are in captivity. If a zoo cannot do this, then it should not keep elephants in its collection, no matter what the justification."
In Les' memory, we urge you to get involved in our fight for elephants held in zoos and circuses everywhere. As he wisely said, "If the public demands better conditions for elephants they will get it we need to change the way the public looks at elephants. That is all of our jobs get articles into papers, write letters to the editor, talk to your friends about elephants, contribute to the agencies working to do better for elephants, know the issues, call your zoo and talk to the folks there, attend zoo meetings and voice your concern, talk to your local politicians, get involved."
We at IDA will miss Les' extraordinary vision, leadership, expertise, and his life-long fight to put the animals' welfare first. We will continue Les' battle and his many successes for the elephants until every elephant is provided the space and natural conditions that all elephants so desperately need.
Our hearts go out to Les' family and his long-time companion Gretchen Kneeter, a former animal keeper at Los Angeles Zoo who is committed to helping animals and who worked alongside Les to bring about change.
We invite all those who knew and admired Les his friends, family, current and former colleagues, animal welfare allies, and anyone else whose life he touched to leave their remembrances of Les here. We would like to create a living memorial to this remarkable and courageous man who enriched the lives of everyone he knew and who made such a difference for animals during his lifetime.
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