The Los Angeles Zoo is one step closer to building a $38.7-million elephant exhibit that would take up more than 3 acres and could stir up more controversy.
At a joint meeting of two City Council committees Monday, members voted to recommend that the project be approved by the full council this month; that vote is scheduled for April 19.
The new exhibit would give the L.A. Zoo's three elephants one of the larger pachyderm spreads in a North American zoo.
But that's far from large enough, according to a dozen animal-rights activists who spoke Monday before council members at the joint meeting of the Budget and Finance Committee and the Arts, Parks, Health and Aging Committee.
"This plan is destined to be outdated before it's finished," said Les Schobert, a former zoo curator and an outspoken opponent of the proposed project. "Today, cutting-edge zoos provide no less than 6 acres for elephants, and some ... are creating large preserves."
Zoo Director John Lewis told council members that the exhibit would feature 3 1/2 acres with flatlands, hills, pools and waterfalls.
The new exhibit will make the L.A. Zoo "one of the best urban zoos in the country," said Lewis, who contended, as he has before, that size is not the primary issue. "There are other issues.... It's how we manage animals in that space."
Councilman Tom LaBonge, whose district includes the zoo, supports the plan and vowed to find even more space.
"I want to do this for the children of Los Angeles," he said. "I'm proud of our elephants, and I'm proud of this exhibit."
The debate over whether the L.A. Zoo should even continue to keep elephants has been a contentious one for more than a year.
Some activists believe the zoo's elephants should be retired to a private animal sanctuary with vast acreage.
They argue that it would be better for the animals -- and for the humans footing the nearly $40-million bill for the new exhibit.
But $17 million of that is coming from two propositions already approved by voters, and another $4.5 million will be privately raised by the zoo. The city will borrow and contribute about $14 million of the total cost as it routinely does to finance capital projects.
In a surprising nod to the activists who have lambasted the zoo, Lewis told the council members, "If there's one thing I agree with our detractors on, it's that we have not done a good job of interpreting elephants, their needs....
"The public tells us they want to see elephants. They want them well taken care of, but they want to see them."
Times staff writer Steve Hymon contributed to this report.