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Los Angeles won't send its pachyderm packing

The City Council votes to allow work on a $42-million elephant exhibit to resume at L.A. Zoo. Foes had said the world's largest land mammals belong in sanctuaries.

January 29, 2009|Carla Hall

The Los Angeles City Council has ruled: The elephant stays in the picture.

Just a month ago, council members temporarily halted construction on the Los Angeles Zoo's $42-million Pachyderm Forest exhibit while they considered killing the project and removing elephants from the zoo altogether. But on Wednesday, at the end of a raucous, three-hour meeting, they voted 11 to 4 to allow the zoo to complete the exhibit and keep its solitary Asian bull elephant, Billy.

Once again, the issue of elephants had transformed a chamber more accustomed to the dronings of bureaucrats into a rally of energetic believers on both sides -- animal welfare activists, zoo supporters and staffers, fundraisers and, of course, celebrities, all displaying a passion that sometimes took the council members by surprise.

When it became clear the zoo would get to keep its elephant, supporters wearing green T-shirts emblazoned with "Save Pachyderm Forest" jumped to their feet screaming while well-heeled zoo fundraisers embraced. A couple of hundred opponents, meanwhile, looked on soberly and trudged out.

The decision was the climax to three months of rallies, news conferences and dueling pleas of experts and citizen animal-lovers alike over whether the world's largest land mammal could thrive in what the zoo touted as a world-class exhibit.

Hefty offers of money abounded: The zoo's fundraising arm promised to cover the city's $14.5-million commitment to the exhibit. Retired game show host Bob Barker, meanwhile, pledged $1.5 million to pay for Billy's upkeep if he were moved to a sanctuary, as animal welfare advocates hoped.

Zoo Director John Lewis said he believed his institution's fundraising organization, the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Assn., and his staff were instrumental in persuading the council to revive the project. "Just the staff coming out in force and clearing up animal care issues was part of it," said Lewis, who also cited community support as key.

People on both sides said the recent interest of labor leaders may have played a part. "I think what happened is labor came forward and said they'd lose jobs -- which was not true," said animal welfare advocate Melya Kaplan. "If the space was used for other animals, then labor would continue to have jobs."

Opponents of the exhibit argued that zoo elephants should be retired to huge sanctuaries that mimic a wild preserve. Supporters, on the other hand, believe the Los Angeles Zoo offers state-of-the-art care and a chance for people of all backgrounds to see an elephant up close.

The lumbering behemoths have ignited debate for more than a decade over whether any exhibit, no matter how elaborate and spacious, is sufficient for animals that roam miles in the wild daily and live socially in herds. A dozen zoos have already gotten out of the elephant-keeping business.

But nowhere has the debate been more fractious or prolonged than in Los Angeles. In the five years since the zoo broke ground for the exhibit, construction has been halted twice for more study, and zoo officials have been hauled before numerous City Council panels for more questions.

Even the latest decision seems unlikely to stem the debate.

"This isn't over," said Catherine Doyle, an elephant-welfare advocate. "As long as there are elephants at the L.A. Zoo, there is going to be controversy. . . . We had experts from around the world saying elephants don't belong in zoos. It's appalling that the science has been ignored."

But the zoo, a city agency, made a full-court press. Unlike in the past, when zoo officials frostily clamped down in the face of noisy opposition, this time they wooed their doubters. They let reporters tread the part of the new exhibit that is already completed and put their vets and keepers in front of council members' hearings.

For everyone who crowded the chamber Wednesday morning, this meeting was their last stand. They were quick to cheer, boo or gasp in disbelief. Council President Eric Garcetti gave visitors a bit of leeway but periodically cautioned against outbursts.

Celebrities who opposed the exhibit provided some of the day's rhetorical flourishes.

"The L.A. Zoo has consistently concealed its use of electric shock and bullhooks," said the entertainer Cher, who opposed the exhibit. (The zoo has long maintained it has not used prods or brandished bullhooks in decades.)

Actress Lily Tomlin lamented that the zoo accrediting agency, the Assn. of Zoos and Aquariums, set minimum space requirements for elephants that she compared to "the equivalent of a three-car garage." And actor Robert Culp called himself a taxpayer who was outraged at funds "going to this shameless political boondoggle."

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