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Council OKs New Digs for 3 Elephants

Supporters applaud as L.A. Zoo wins approval for $39-million, 3.5-acre exhibit. Foes say the pachyderms would be better off at a sanctuary.

April 20, 2006|Carla Hall | Times Staff Writer

It seems as though "the L.A. 3" will have a little more room to roam in the future.

After a morning of impassioned pleas -- both for and against housing elephants at the Los Angeles Zoo -- the City Council voted 13 to 2 to approve construction of a $39-million, 3.5-acre exhibit for the park's three pachyderms.

The vote concluded months of testifying, rallying and e-mailing by dueling campaigns -- those who favored the exhibit and those who believe only a sanctuary or preserve can appropriately house an elephant.

"There's been a lot of passion on both sides," said Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, who voted for the project. "I challenge people who have written us e-mails, if you care about the elephants, if you care about the zoo, personally invest in the zoo.... We have to care for our animals."

Animal activist Rory Freedman responded, plaintively, "Three acres does not care for animals!" But her words were lost in the enthusiastic applause of zoo supporters.

Proponents sat on one side of the room, while animal welfare activists sat on the other, some wearing stickers saying, "Free the L.A. 3" (namely, the elephants: Billy, Gita and Ruby).

The meeting proved to be an opportunity for council members to reveal where they stood.

"This is an investment in the children of Los Angeles," said Councilman Tom LaBonge, whose district includes the park.

Another supporter invoked the movie "Crash" to make a strained comparison between the frustrated Angelenos of the movie and children unable to see real elephants.

"In the opening scene," said Councilman Alex Padilla, "Don Cheadle is talking about how in Los Angeles sometimes we crash into each other just to feel something. Because sometimes we don't have that human interaction. Well, if we're going to relegate the children of Los Angeles to only experiencing wildlife via the Internet, I think we're doing them a tremendous disservice."

Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who along with Councilman Dennis Zine voted against the project, best represented the philosophy of the activists. "I believe in freeing the elephants.... We're living in the 21st century. It's time to respect our elephants and give them their freedom and put them in a sanctuary."

John Lewis, director of the zoo, a city agency, told the council that the new exhibit would be the second largest in the state. He reiterated his belief that space is not the issue with elephants -- it's how the elephants are coaxed into exercising and moving around that space.

But activists argued that elephants, which can walk miles a day in the wild, need hundreds of acres to roam and to maintain the health of their problem-prone feet.

No other animal has so polarized zoo defenders and animal welfare activists.

When then-Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa was campaigning for mayor he promised activists that he would look into the planned exhibit. After he was elected, he commissioned a study on the elephant exhibit.

"I don't think zoos are big enough to house elephants. Nature preserves are more appropriate places for elephants," Villaraigosa said Tuesday.

On Wednesday, Villaraigosa stuck by his position but appeared unlikely to veto the council's decision. "I have a great deal of respect for the council, and the council voted very overwhelmingly in support of this proposal."

One possible complication: Assemblyman Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys) has introduced a bill in the state Assembly that would mandate California zoos provide five acres for three elephants -- and half an acre more for every additional elephant. The bill is scheduled to go to a committee hearing next week.

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Times staff writer Steve Hymon contributed to this report.

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