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Comedy Stars Give Their All for Elephants

By Georja Umano

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Billy's Plight Is No Joke

Lily the great














Joviality and laughter filled the evening soiree at the Voice for Animals Foundation’s Beverly Hills fundraiser hosted by Lily Tomlin. Top veteran comedians lent their talents to raise money for a pending court case to free Billy the elephant from the L.A. Zoo.

Ellen Lavinthal, gracious hostess



Held in the gorgeous estate of Ellen and Dennis Lavinthal, the lawn was filled with well heeled animal lovers (or at least anyone who could afford the $100 -  $350 price of admission). All who came were rewarded with some big laughs, as well as gourmet vegan food (donated by Native Foods and Jamaica Cakes, with pizza from Z Pizza), California wine and the latest info on Billy’s  case.

Meyla Kaplan, founder and executive director of Voice for Animals, explained that the movement to liberate elephants started in L.A. at least 14 years ago with a group called “Elefriends,” elephant lovers who would meet weekly to discuss how to help the then four elephants in the zoo. Sadly and shockingly, Tara and Gita both died shortly thereafter, and Ruby was eventually sent to the PAWS (Performing Animal Welfare Society) sanctuary in San Andreas, California where she is thriving to this day. 

Only Billy remains in a pen, and he, like the vast majority of elephants in his situation, is exhibiting psychotic behavior (he rocks his whole body –an exhibit not displayed in the wild) and the beginnings of foot disease.  The foot disease, comes on because the elephants cannot walk for miles a day as their soft feet are designed to do, and standing is too much pressure on them. This is usually the beginning of the end for elephants, and they end up dying before their primes.

Billy in isolation



VFTA’s lawsuit originated in 2007 and was filed on behalf of two plaintiffs including the late actor Robert Culp.  The suit charges the Los Angeles Zoo with cruel and unusual punishment of elephants (there have been 14 elephant deaths in the zoo’s history) and seeks to shut down the $42 million planned elephant exhibit the city council approved in January of 2009.  It was the second time the council voted in approval of the exhibit in light of sufficient evidence that proves the care captive elephants receive constitutes civil and criminal abuse under California law.  After a series of motions and appeals, the Court of Appeals finally ruled the case could go to trial.

Fighting for truth and justice, David Casselman



This case is of remarkable and historical significance. High powered attorney David Casselman (Wasserman, Comden, Casselman, and Esensten) who has been winning high level civil rights cases for over thirty years, is continuing to prosecute this case pro bono.  It offers a unique opportunity to substantively challenge the inhumane treatment of elephants in a public zoo. This case is already grabbing international media attention. It has the potential to remedy abuses as well as enlighten the world regarding longstanding problems. Hopefully it will improve the plight of captive elephants everywhere. The case is set to begin on November 2 and the fundraising is happening primarily to pay for the costs of bringing in elephant experts from around the world to testify.

Linda Grey, VFTA Board member, and Meyla Kaplan, founder and exec. director



“Lily and all our guests understand the significance of the lawsuit, not only to save Billy from what inevitably will be an early death, but to send an even louder message,” explains Kaplan.  “These magnificent, sensitive and loving creatures belong in the wild. And if they’ve already been brought here, then they belong in wide-open sanctuaries designed to meet their physical and emotional needs.”

Bruce Vilanch kills




  The hilarious Bruce Vilanch was the emcee. He introduced himself as Ellen Kagen. He claimed that he and Roseanne had just been released from an elephant sanctuary, and then delighted the audience with many more outrageous proclamations.

Rick Overton lends his funny bone to the event



Rick Overton was fun as he acted out animals and big names.  “Nobody likes being in a cage except for a couple of sickos on the internet and—I’m not speaking from personal experience, I swear.” He did a number where Arnold Schwartznegger was telling his wife Maria, ‘We need more Kennedy money.”

Elayne Boosler was a crowd favorite. She remembers doing benefits for Billy 20 years ago.  She is very involved with animals and her national organization, Tails of Joy.  Many of her jokes hit home with the audience as she loves to talk about her pets and admits she “steps over homeless people to get to feral cats.”  She says with animals, they don’t hold back. You can give them all the love and they give it back.  If she asks, “do I look fat?”  the answer (in dog voice) is “no, let’s eat something!”  A string of doggie jokes about “doodie” were a scream.  Then she said, “I was hoping Billy would be here cause I’d look thin.”

Elayne Boosler still hilarious with fan Georja Umano



Orny Adams was the up and coming talent at the party.  In his strong, irate set, he complained about everything from overly long receipts at CVS and grocery stores, to erectile dysfunction being called a side effect.

Patty Shenker fills all needs



The headliner was of course Lily Tomlin.  She has been doing much advocacy work for elephants lately. She came out with a mischievous smile and attitude, often turning it toward the audience.  She mused that geneticists had been creating new life forms, and it was possible some of them were in the audience.   She projected a dry and often subtle wit. She said she worried that, “no matter how cynical you become, it’s never enough to catch up.”  She also worried that with the population explosion, “loneliness may become a peak experience.” She felt that before they gave anyone else a reality show, they should have to  “prove that at some time in their life they were in touch with reality.”

Bryan Monell with LCA, hugs Bill Dyer of IDA



There was an auction after the comedy sets, and Tomlin grossed $1200 twice for agreeing to record one her character’s voices on an answering machine. It was a thrill when she was asked to say a few words in character, and out came the infamous Ernestine and Baby Edith.  Another prize which brought in $600 was getting to spend a whole day with the elephant Ruby at the PAWS sanctuary.

Denise Peck, future animal rights attorney, with husband



One couple came all the way from San Francisco for the event. Denise Peck has recently graduated from law school and wants to work for animals. She and her husband Daniel Armstrong, reminded me that you can access all the medical records of all the elephants that have died in zoos on the IDA (In Defense of Animals) website.

Billy Stern surveys the salads



Bill Dyer, Regional Director of IDA and Bryan Monell, LCA (Last Chance for Animals) investigator, were on hand, as were many members and representatives from a plethora of animal organizations.  Patty Shenker who is a major donor and leader for many animal groups, including Animal Acres, was greeting guests. I have attended a couple of fundraisers at her house. Here she was pitching in as bartender, as was Rosemary Arnot, who is on the Board of Directors for PAWS Sanctuary.  She often visits Billy in the zoo and said, “I want to see Billy at PAWS.”

Lucky elephants who go to PAWS Sanctuary



Linda Grey was there as a Board member of VFTA.  She was assisting in organizing the entertainment. Our hostess Ellen Lavinthal also encouraged everyone to order the new spay and neuter license plates from the state of California. Fawn was there in long blonde braids with colored ribbons. She was a singer in the fundraisers for Prop. 2 where the public voted to give chickens more room in their cages. George Schlatter, producer of “Laugh In” was on hand. When I asked him if he was an elephant advocate, he responded jovially, “I’m an elephant.”

Councilman Cardenas inspires the crowd



After the comedy, we were addressed by Los Angeles City Councilman Tony Cardenas. He was and is still leading the movement within the City Council to acknowledge the elephant abuses and not move forward with a new elephant exhibit. A righteous, charismatic speaker, he reminded everyone that, yes, we had our laughs, but Billy is not having fun. He is suffering.  “Tonight is not about what’s funny, it’s about what’s wrong. We must help David Casselman get to the finish line.  Billy needs to have his freedom, his life back."  He asked everyone, if we believe in visualizations, to “SEE BILLY AT PAWS.”



Georja Umano is an actress/comedienne and animal advocate.

Published on Aug 08, 2010

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