In late November of 2020, during another surge of COVID-19 cases and with U.S. hospitals nearing their pandemic peak, Cher embarked on a journey from Los Angeles to Pakistan. Her mission was to ensure the safe relocation of Kaavan, an Asian elephant that had been languishing in the rundown Islamabad zoo.
This effort marked the culmination of a five-year endeavor led by Cher’s charity fund, Free the Wild, a part of the Entertainment Industry Foundation dedicated to liberating captive animals. Kaavan’s relocation to a sanctuary in Cambodia was a success, but he wasn’t the first elephant to touch Cher’s heart. Cher confides, “The truth is that I saved Kaavan because I couldn’t save Billy. And Billy still suffers every day.”
Unlike Islamabad, Billy is much closer to home, residing at the L.A. Zoo in Los Angeles. The 38-year-old elephant has spent the majority of his life there, prompting frequent calls for his release to a sanctuary. This sentiment was also echoed in a December motion by the L.A. City Council’s Personnel, Audits, and Animal Welfare Committee. Nevertheless, even as the number of American zoos discontinuing or planning to phase out elephant exhibits nears 40 since 1991, the L.A. Zoo administration hasn’t shown any intention of following suit, regardless of the cyclical news coverage advocating for Billy’s move. (In response to this article, a spokesperson reiterated the zoo’s stance from 2022, vehemently disagreeing with any negative portrayal of their Asian elephants’ care and well-being.) Nonetheless, Cher is determined not to let the momentum fade. During an August conversation, the multifaceted artist — singer, actress, philanthropist, and now a gelato entrepreneur — discussed her aspirations for Billy and her busy current endeavors.
What’s the current top priority for Free the Wild?
My foremost concern is Billy. It took me five years of legal battles to secure Kaavan’s release from that zoo. Islamabad eventually grasped the importance of the move. Now, we’re dealing with the United States, one of the most advanced nations, and yet our own citizens fail to comprehend the impact of zoo life on these creatures.
One might assume that Pakistan posed more challenges logistically than Los Angeles.
Yes, that’s what you’d expect, and it’s heartbreaking. Billy is on my mind constantly. He’s enduring continuous pain from the unyielding ground he walks on. He exhibits the typical behavior of a captive elephant suffering deep physical and emotional distress, every single moment. If you observe Billy, he sways and bobs — that’s his entire existence. It’s truly distressing. He’s been confined there for far too long and deserves his final years in a sanctuary. But zoos keep elephants because they attract visitors and generate significant revenue.
What do you hope people will do?
I urge people to inundate the City Council with their concerns for Billy, pressing for his swift transfer to a sanctuary. The citizens of Los Angeles essentially own the zoo, yet their influence over decision-making seems limited. The zoo has also witnessed over a dozen elephant deaths since 1968, with details of some incidents withheld. Obtaining records is a challenge.
When did you feel the strongest connection to an animal?
My sister and I had a dog named Pansy when we were young. However, my most profound bond with an animal was with my cat. We discovered him under a truck while touring in Detroit. He was frail and sickly, fitting in the palm of your hand. I’m not exaggerating, despite my tendency to do so. We cared for him at the vet’s for two days while performing in Detroit. Then, I brought him home, and he remained with me for 16 years. He was like a dog to me, and his name was Mr. Big.