Monday, October 20, 2008


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.

Please click the "comments" link below to post your message or sign your name.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

He will be fondly remembered in North Carolina...he was a wonderful man and a great leader!

C HALL said...

My remembrances of Les were ones of great joy when discussing his beloved elephants. I was privileged to have spent some time with him looking a possible site for a Calif. sanctuary. His knowledge and enthusiasm will be solely missed by all who work to help provide resources for captive elephants. My sincere sympathy goes to those closest to him. His passing is a great loss to those persons and animals whose future lives would have been affected. Hopefully, someone continues his cause with the same vigor.
Cindy Hall

Marshall Sorkin said...

I, unfortunately, was not familiar with the lifetime of work Mr. Schobert had done on behalf of captive animals. From reading his obituary, it is clear that he was a very unique person in the world of zoos. I have long been an advocate for the humane treatment of animals and particularly for captive elephants. I have great respect and admiration for people like Mr. Schobert who risk alienation by their peers in their efforts to speak out for the welfare of animals.

Marshall Sorkin

Anonymous said...

Les Schobert was a giant in the field of elephoant keeping. He will be greatly missed and brought such a wonderful perspective of animal welfare first. I wish I had met him and have loved reading about him. We need a lot more people on this earth with his love, compassion and education of animals. What a wonderful life he used to do such good for this rock we all call earth.

alyne16 said...

I only spoke with Les once but went to his web site frequently. He was an inspiration to me in my work to free the elephants who languish at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. I'm sure his next journey will be in the company of all the animals who are so grateful to him. Alyne Fortgang, Seattle, WA

Anonymous said...

I didn't know Les either but was really touched by his story. I've copied the portion that features the ways he says we all must get involved and am planning on making sure I follow through on these year in his memory.

Thank you,


arlene lanagan said...

I was very moved by reading about the life of Les Schobert. And although I never had the priviledge of meeting him, from what I learned, I felt as if I new him. He seemed fearless in overcoming adversity...what a rare and wonderful gift that is! His love and compassion gave him the courage and strength to make life better for his beautiful elephants. I only would hope to live up to that strength of character and commitment, that gave way to so many triumphs!!
I know I would of enjoyed talking with Les, and wish I had met such a gentleman.

My deepest sympathy goes out to his family and friends in your time of sorrow and great loss. My thoughts and prayers are with you. I know he would want us all to continue his mission to help the elephants..and I will.

Thank you Les

Anonymous said...

Les éléphants viennent de perdre un de leurs plus ardents défenseur C'est une perte immense-Jamais nous ne pourrons oublier toute l'énergie qu'il a mis pour leur venir en aide et c'est pourquoi, nous nous devons de continuer à nous battre avec cette même énergie pour les éléphantsmais aussi en mémoire de LES SCHOBERT-

dennis said...

Les is inspirational. His inspiration and work on behalf of the animals lives on. As a life-long zoo professional, he was a pioneer in tackling headon problems and hypocracies in the zoo industry. Les is a rare hero: he had the integrity to stand up for what he believed in, created a vision for a more humane tomorrow and was willing to do whatever he could to make a difference. There is no way to measure our loss - both personally and as a movement. I will always treasure the good advice, recommendations and different perspective Les offered. We miss you Les and always will.

Barbara Wood said...

Les Schobert was my cousin but we did not live near each other and I didn't know him that well. I was impressed by the piece I read about his work with animals. I knew he work in the zoo industry but was unsure as to exactly what he did. After reading his story here I decided to make a donation in his name instead of flowers. Thank you for this opportunity to learn more about him.

Anonymous said...

Today is Les' memorial celebration of his life.

Jeanne Cannon said...

Knowing Les on a personal level was such a joy to my husband and me. And being in the field of animal rescue, we equally appreciate all of the wonderful things he did for the welfare of animals, especially elephants. His knowledge, sense of humor and incredible ways with people were a real asset in his work. And, what a treasure to find a "calling" in this life that makes a positive impact in or world! (We should all follow that lead!)
We were blessed with wonderful times with Les and Gretchen, and carry many treasured memories of those times. And, they always bring a smile to our face! We look forward to meeting Les again someday on the "other" side.
Jeanne and Jerry Cannon

Darla Elkins said...

We will miss Les so much,
all the good times we had with him.
when pumpkin carving was the best time.
He would always get a good laugh out of me!
He taught me how to play poker, now everytime i play i think of him. i'm going to miss him and how he used to make me laugh. iloveyouLES!

Calvin Jones said...

Les was an amazing person. He always knew how to make me laugh. Playing poker with him was always the best but i could never beat him. I was always interested to hear his stories about the elepants. To do what he was doing was very couragous. The animal cruelty against the elepants had been hidden for so long and im glad that Les steped out and made a stand. He inspired me and I miss him very much.

Calvin Jones

Anonymous said...

Wow where do we begin....Les we love you and miss you more than words can express! When life would dish us challenges we would simply show up on your doorstep or call you and you always calmed us down and simply gave us the simplest and most rational solution. Jason and i thought of you and Gretchen" the cook" as our parents away from our parents. We were able to talk the both of you and share our most intimate problems knowing whole heartedly that your advise was from your heart and had the best interest of our family at hand. As you know, Jason and i were winging life and doing the best we can with the situations we were delt. After a long talk at the dining room table, Jason and i would leave feeling so much better than the condition in which we arrived. Les....Laken and Calvin respected you so much and longed to visit your home and hear your stories of inspiration; not an easy task seeing that Laken and Calvin are teenagers!! Les, you were always there for us regardless of the need at hand and we are forever greatful and we will always remember you and wish you were still with us!!!! Thank you for all of your love and admiration for our family! You were a gifted and intellegent source with a blessed wife and we will never forget the times we spent with the two of you. You deeply inpacted our life in so many ways!!! We love you Les!!! Love Jason and Samantha Jones

John Freeze said...

I worked under Les as the elephant section supervisor at the NC Zoo. Les could be a challenge to work for, but I always knew where he stood, along with enjoying his good sense of humor.
Over the years we lost touch, and then reunited, having the pleasure to assist Les any way I could with his mission to improve the lives of captive elephants. Les will long be remembered as a pioneer by helping to change, for the better, the way elephants are kept in captivity now, and in the future.
I miss him and our phone conversations, just talking about old times. My heart goes out to Gretchen and his family.

Originally posted by John Freeze on Desert Sun obituary page, November 21, 2008

Robert Fry (St. James) said...

October 30, 2008

To the Schobert family: We send our deepest condolences on Les' passing. Les and I became colleagues at the NC ZOO in the summer of 1978 and worked closely on the development and expansion of the Zoo for the next 14 years when Les left for L.A. Much of what exists at the Zoo today is a legacy to him. We've stayed in touch since and Les was always working on an animal rescue project.

He cared greatly for all wildlife and for improving the commitment of zoos to their proper care, for which he did not always endear himself to all AZA colleagues, to his immense credit.

We were close personal and professional friends and we miss him.

Robert & Ann Fry (Director, N.C. Zoo 1978-1993

Originally published on Desert Sun obituary page, October 30, 2008 by

Arlene Lettau (Las Vegas, NV) said...

Just saw on the Memorial to Les on the internet. He was a very special man and and I was privileged to have worked for him.
My prayers are with him and his family at this time,
Arlene. retired Elephant and Animal Keeper LA Zoo
Arlene Lettau (Las Vegas, NV)

Originally posted on Desert Sun obituary page, October 30,3008

Ruthann Pratt Cross (Tampa, FL) said...

Gretchen, You don't know me, nor did Les. I am a co-worker of Les' brother Neal. It was through Neal(also an e-mail buddy) that I learned about Les and his many endeavors and followed them closely! I also discovered that I went to high school and USF with Les. You are in my prayers and thoughts at this time. Les left a good mark on this earth!

Originally posted on Desert Sun obituary page, October 24, 2008

The Ragano Family (Tampa, FL) said...

Schobert Family,

Our thoughts and prayers are with all of you. He will be missed!

Originally posted on Desert Sun obituary page, October 24, 2008

Vicky Hunter (Palm Desert, CA) said...

Dear Gretchen,

What a great loss, Les was a unique and speacial human being, someone you don't find everyday. He will be missed, his laugh, his jokes and most importantly, the kind heart and wisdom he shared with all.

Like someone else said, he is the owl in the night, the star in the sky and is with us always.
It was a honor to have known someone with such style, character and charisma. Please know that you are not alone, your Grainger family awaits your return.

Originally posted on Desert Sun obituary page, October 23,2008

Ron Bills (Dallas, TX) said...

Gretchen, I am so sorry for your loss, Both Les and yourself mean so much to me and my family. My children we all deeply moved when I told them the news. You made a great impact on our life and have been great friends. The world lost a good person who only tried to make it better. We love you

Originally posted on Desert Sun obituary page, October 23,2008

Renette, Ron & Valerie Jensen (La Quinta, CA) said...

Dear Gretchen,
The loss of someone so close to us is difficult, we share in your grief. Take comfort in knowing he is in a better place. Like the owl in the night, he is watching over you. Les will live on in our hearts and in our prayers.

Originally posted on Desert Sun obituary page, October 22,2008

Melya Kaplan (Venice, CA) said...

Les, I miss you beyond belief. I can't believe I can't just pick up the phone and hear your booming voice. I can't believe I won't ever hear you joke with me again and tell me to be good. You were a hero to so many of us. You are alive in my heart forever.

Originally posted on Desert Sun obituary page, October 22,2008

Carol Buckley (hohenwald) said...

Les was a man of great character, willing to speak out for those less fortunate. He was not extreme in his opinions, striving to reach a fair and humane compromise for all captive animals. He has made his mark and will be missed.

Originally posted on Desert Sun obituary page, October 22, 2008s

Vangie Gasper (Indio, CA) said...

Les always came to visit us @ Grainger with a smile. I admired, respected, and envied the road well travelled by a great human being.

Originally posted on Desert Sun obituary page October 22, 2008

Maggie Barrett (Victoria, BC) said...

To all of Les's family and friends.
I only met Les once in Tennessee but he made such an impact on me, that he is one person I'll never forget. To me, he had the soul and compassion of an elephant and deep understanding of all captive animals. He truly influenced change in some of my views for the better and made me, I feel, a much better whole person. He will be missed.
Namaste, dear Les.

Originally posted on Desert Sun website, October 22, 2008

Maggie Roy (Saratoga Springs, NY) said...

To Les' family - I learned of Les' passing by a news clip in The Elephant Sanctuary's website. Les was a great advocate for elephants, indeed, all captive animals, and I'm sure that when he worked in the zoo he was compassionate with the animals he cared for. He learned by being in the zoo industry that zoos are no place for animals, especially elephants who suffer the most of any zoo animal. The animal welfare community has lost a great spokesman! My prayers go out to all of you and I hope you will continue his work in animal welfare.

Originally posted on Desert Sun obituary page, October 22, 2008

Dina Evora (Thousand Palms, CA) said...

Les was more than just a wonderful person, he was kind and an Angel.
We all at Grainger will miss his jokes and laughs.
Dina and Mike

Originally posted on the Desert Sun obituary page, October 22, 2008

Joshua Kneeter (camarillo, CA) said...

best uncle ever.

Originally published on Desert Sun obituary page, October 21, 2008

Tammy Potts-O'Kelley (Asheboro, NC) said...

May the peace which comes from the memories of love shared, comfort you now and in the days ahead. Les will be missed!

Originally posted on Desert Sun obituary page, October 21, 2008

Greta Lint (Asheboro, NC) said...

I had the pleasure of working with Les when he was general curator of the NC Zoo. I didn't work in the Animal Division, instead in marketing and planned many conventions that focused upon particular species. I thoroughly enjoyed that working relationship. He had a wonderful sense of humor, some moments of which I have shared with others throughout the years. As an onlooker, I never saw him ask more of this employees that what he would do. I respected him. He certainly made a positive impact upon everyone he met. My sincere condolences go to Gretchen and his family.

Originally posted on Desert Sun obituary page, October 21, 2008

Sheryl Stith (Riverside, CA) said...

Gretchen -
I am so so sorry for your loss. There really are no words , I can only imagine the pain you must feel. May you find comfort in knowing he is pain free and smiling down from above. He will always be with you . God bless.......

Originally posted on Desert Sun obituary page on October 21, 2008

Susan C. (Port Coquitlam, BC) said...

My heart goes out to the family and friends of Mr. Schobert. A heart of gold stopped beating, but his legacy lives on ....we will continue what he started....and, just like the mighty Elephant, we will never forget....

Originally posted on Desert Sun obituary page, October 21, 2008

Janet Crystal (Cambridge, MA) said...

As a supporter of The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, I have come to know of Les Schobert's care and concern for elephants through his articles. I am saddened by his loss as I am sure his friends and colleagues are. The elephants have surely lost one of their finest friends and voices.

Originally posted on Desert Sun obituary page, October 21, 2008

Nancy (WA) said...

To the family of Les, he will be truly missed in the animal rights community. Articulate and caring, he was truly an asset to the struggle for elephant welfare and animal welfare in general. Vaya con Dios, Les. We're really gonna miss you!

Originally posted on Desert Sun obituary page, October 21, 2008

Amy Mayers (Washington, DC) said...

Les was one-of-a-kind and a national treasure. To paraphrase Emma Goldman, I will mourn his death, celebrate his life and fight like hell for elephants and all animals.

Originally posted on Desert Sun obituary page, October 21, 2008

Barbara and Bruce Phillips (Durham, NC) said...

Dear Gretchen and Family,

We are so sorry for the death of our beloved friend, Les. We will miss him and we hope you will have enough great memories to keep him alive in your heart. I know we will!!


Barbara and Bruce

Originally posted on Desert Sun obituary page, October 21, 2008

Lori said...

To the friends and family of Les: There are no words to ease the pain and sadness of losing such a wonderful, caring and compassionate man. His smile and booming personalty will truly be missed. I only had the pleasure of his aquaintance for a couple of years, but it will be a time sincerely remembered. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and love of elephants. RIP, my friend. May God's Angels hold you close.

When you miss me just look up to the night sky and remember; I am like a star, sometimes you can't see me, but I am always there.

Originally posted on Desert Sun obituary page, October 21, 2008

Anonymous said...

A true hero who gave a voice to our captive elephants. You will be greatly missed, Les.