After weeks of impassioned and lengthy debates over elephants and whether the world's largest land mammals still belong in the Los Angeles Zoo, supporters and critics alike got only a tentative verdict Wednesday: The City Council halted construction of the zoo's controversial $42-million elephant exhibit but did not outright kill it.
The project seemed headed for extinction but for an 11th-hour proposal from the zoo's fundraising arm, the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Assn., which offered to contribute millions of dollars more to pay for the new habitat.
As a result, the council referred the matter back to its Arts, Parks, Health and Aging Committee to examine whether to accept the association's offer and to consider what to do with the 3.6-acre space and the zoo's sole elephant, Billy, if the project is scrapped. The zoo has already spent $12 million on construction costs.
The association's offer eased worries of some council members, who fretted over the cost of the exhibit at a time when city services are being cut back. But several council members have maintained all along that it is less about money than about the elephants' welfare, arguing that the new facility would be too small for the needs of the huge, social creatures.
"Our zoo is trying to do the best job they can with the real estate they have and the budget they have," said Councilman Tony Cardenas, who conceived the motion to stop construction of the exhibit and move Billy to a sanctuary. "Elephants don't fit in zoos; they have ailments they don't get out in the wild. Whether it's an acre or three to four acres, it's inadequate."
The crowd that filled the council chamber expecting a final decision divided as if at a wedding of hostile families. Animal welfare advocates packed the seats to the left of the center aisle while zoo supporters and staffers, some wearing bright green T-shirts proclaiming their position, filled the seats to the right.
"It all boils down to whether you believe we should have animals of this magnitude in captivity," said Councilwoman Jan Perry, who told the crowd that she planned to vote against the exhibit, provoking one of the frequent bursts of applause and cheers.
When Councilman Bill Rosendahl expressed awe at seeing so many people show up for an animal issue, he wondered if they would show up when the council tackled social issues.
"I want that kind of commitment to human beings that we're giving to elephants -- can I have that from everyone in the room?" he asked.
The crowd cheered lustily.
The price tag of the exhibit includes about $20 million in voter-approved bond funds for zoo improvements and nearly $5 million in private donations raised by the zoo association.
The city would borrow another large chunk of the project's financing -- $14.5 million -- and repay it at a rate of $1.2 million a year over 20 years. But on Monday, the council's budget committee decided that was too costly a commitment, and recommended supporting the motion to kill the exhibit.
On Tuesday night, zoo association officials came up with the idea of their group assuming the city's burden of paying back the borrowed money plus interest.
Rosendahl commended the zoo's fundraising organization, saying it had "stepped up to the plate. . . . Even though I'm not for elephants in the zoo, I think we need to respect this."
He urged that the exhibit be granted further consideration, provoking scattered applause from zoo supporters and sotto voce groans from animal welfare advocates who thought they were about to prevail.
After the council's vote, the room fell dead silent -- as supporters and detractors alike tried to figure out what was next. Subdued, all filed out. Then they regrouped, each faction putting an optimistic spin on the council's vote.
"We're glad we have a chance to prove to the city, to the council, that we can provide a fiscally responsible, humane exhibit," said zoo Director John Lewis.
Zoo association President Connie Morgan sounded unfazed by the prospect of raising the extra money during a recession to pay off the city loan.
"We already raise about $10 million a year from various sources," Morgan said. "So, really, raising about 10% is not a difficult thing to do. Our membership base continues to grow, the support for the zoo continues to grow."
But animal welfare advocates saw a measure of victory.
"Overall, we're very pleased that they've stopped construction on the exhibit," said Catherine Doyle, a longtime elephant welfare activist with the group In Defense of Animals. "We still have a lot of work to do, and we'd like Billy to be moved to a sanctuary."
If the zoo is allowed to finish the exhibit, it will bring in more Asian elephants to start a breeding program that will include Billy, an Asian bull.
But Cardenas said he thinks the council will not vote to restart construction. And he said it will be his job to remind his colleagues of the welfare issues, not just the financial ones.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said that although he still sympathizes with the activists in their opposition to elephants at zoos, he will go along with whatever the council decides.
"Obviously they're revisiting the issue and they have a right to do it," he said, stopping in the City Hall rotunda, "and I'll respect whatever they do."