The Los Angeles Zoo's controversial pachyderm exhibit was hardly the proverbial elephant in the room Wednesday during a packed L.A. City Council meeting.
Far from being an unspoken issue, the topic consumed 4 1/2 hours of discussion. People cheered and groaned as wildlife experts, animal welfare activists, impassioned schoolteachers, zoo lovers, a former game show host-cum-animal cause philanthropist (Bob Barker) and council members weighed in on the future of elephants in the city.
At issue was a proposal from Councilman Tony Cardenas to halt construction of the zoo's $42-million "Pachyderm Forest" habitat and create an elephant preserve of at least 60 acres elsewhere in the L.A. Basin.
In the end, the council took no vote and referred the matter to its budget committee for further study. But at least one council member said he was amazed by all the trumpeting the issue inspired.
"I hope we spend four hours on the homeless, gridlock and other issues that affect our city," Councilman Bill Rosendahl said.
The fate of the exhibit has been called into question several times over the last few years. On Wednesday it was clear that the issue remained an emotional one for council members and city residents.
"I've been to South Africa," Councilman Dennis Zine said, noting that he had seen elephants in their natural habitat. "It's a huge, huge animal. It doesn't belong in an enclosure."
Councilman Tom LaBonge, a fierce supporter of the zoo, said that not everyone in Los Angeles has the means to go to South Africa to view elephants in the wild and that the elephant exhibit should be completed.
"Everyone can get down the 101 Freeway to Griffith Park to the zoo," he said.
Cardenas, who offered two motions on the matter, said the issue comes down to "what is humane." Though the council approved the zoo exhibit two years ago, Cardenas said he reopened debate on the issue after seeing medical records of L.A. zoo elephants.
The debate has come to focus on whether the zoo's new exhibit will offer the small herd of Asian elephants that the zoo hopes to acquire an environment in which they can thrive.
Zoo-bound elephants, which can live into their 60s, are bedeviled by foot problems and arthritis, and the L.A. Zoo's elephants have been no exception. But, as zoo director John Lewis said Wednesday, the practice of elephant keeping has improved dramatically in the last 18 years.
The exhibit under construction would offer nearly four acres (including barns) for elephants to wander. It would also include waterfalls, pools, mud wallows and various surfaces to tread, all of which would encourage natural behaviors and exercise, according to chief zoo veterinarian Curtis Eng.
In the eyes of behaviorist Joyce Poole, however, such amenities are not enough. Poole said elephants need interaction with dozens of elephants on a daily basis, not just room to roam.
"It's not just about walking," Poole told the council. "Elephants in the wild are active in mind and body."
At the moment, the L.A. Zoo keeps a solitary bull Asian elephant, Billy, who has a much-discussed habit of bobbing his head. In the view of animal welfare activists, that behavior is neurotic and emblematic of what is wrong with the zoo.
"I can't get over Billy's head-bobbing," Councilman Ed Reyes said. "Every time I go there, that's all he does."
"That's something he came to the zoo with," zoo director Lewis said Wednesday. Lewis told council members that Billy exhibited the behavior a third of the time, "mostly when he was being fed. We've done behavior modification so he's reduced that to about 24% of his 24-hour day."
For some council members, the day's discussion was a crash course in elephant care.
"This has been like a college education for me," said Councilman Herb Wesson, who had received a phone call earlier in the morning from actress Halle Berry expressing her reservations about the exhibit.
"I have some questions and I am not prepared to vote today -- and Halle Berry calling me had nothing to do with it," he quipped.