Billy the elephant is living large.
Excuse the pun, but I think in this case it's more than apt.
The Los Angeles Zoo pachyderm has been freed from his relatively cramped enclosure into one that's more than 10 times bigger.
Teams of workers have built Billy a waterfall to bathe in, a rolling hillside to climb and a serpentine corridor to walk through. For rest and relaxation, he's got a new, hangar-sized paddock. With heated floors and hanging catwalks for his keepers, the entire structure looks like something out of a Spielberg epic.
Given the funk that's descended upon just about every publicly funded institution in L.A. these days — from libraries to state universities — it was refreshing to visit the city-run zoo this week and see construction crews working flat out to finish.
The Elephants of Asia exhibit is the zoo's biggest project in 50 years.
"This gives you the feeling of looking through a marsh into the elephant's habitat," said the zoo's director, John R. Lewis, as we stood by a screen of papyrus reeds in a corner designed to look like Thailand. "People are going to have to work a bit to see the elephants."
The exhibit opens to the public Dec. 16. Go there then and you'll see something very rare in this age of budget cuts: L.A. doing something big for working families — and doing it well.
At $42 million, Billy's new home wasn't cheap. Los Angeles taxpayers footed roughly half the bill, Lewis told me, voting years back for bond measures to fund zoo expansion. It took a long legal and political fight to get the exhibit completed because from the very beginning some people were trying to stop it.
They said the zoo couldn't be trusted with elephants, and that even with 3.8 acres — roughly the size of 2 1/2 football fields — the new exhibit doesn't have enough room to ensure the physical and emotional health of the Earth's largest land mammal.
"It's certainly a waste of taxpayer money for a space that still doesn't provide what elephants need to thrive," Catherine Doyle of the group In Defense of Animals told me this week.
Doyle and many others argued that the exhibit should be shelved. They wanted Billy moved to a sanctuary where he could roam in open fields, as he did before he was captured in Malaysia.
Some of these elephant lovers attacked me in 2008 when, in my very first column, I argued that keeping Billy and building the new exhibit were crucial to the zoo's future. Removing elephants from the zoo, I said, would subtract something from the lives of the city's children.
"Maybe we should lock you up in a cage and charge all those kids to look at you," one of them wrote me.
In the months that followed, hundreds of elephant liberationists filled the L.A. City Council chambers for hearings. They went to court. And they won a council vote that at one point stopped the construction. But in the end, they lost.
The winners of L.A.'s elephant wars, as I see it, are a group of people who don't form an especially united or vocal constituency — the zoo's 1.5 million annual visitors.
Zoo officials say the elephants are winners too.
"It will give the elephants so many choices for how they spend their days," said Jennie Becker, the zoo's curator of mammals. "I think they'll find a lot of joy there. And so will we."
Lewis, the zoo director, gave me a behind-the-scenes look at some of the systems in place to ensure the elephants will be well cared for — rubber floors to prevent foot pain, filtration systems to keep the water clean.
Even Doyle sees some good in the new project. It's certainly a better situation, she said, for the two Asian elephants that just joined Billy on long-term loan from the San Diego Zoo. Both Jewel and Tina were until recently suffering horribly as circus animals, she said.
"The city should make it a rescue center for circus elephants," Doyle said of the exhibit.
After visiting Billy's new quarters this week, I took some time to take in the zoo. It was a gorgeous fall morning, and I got plenty of reminders of what a world-class zoo can offer — the beauty of the natural world balancing out the daily rhythms of big-city life.
I saw young parents with newborns and toddlers, and I remembered putting my own sons — now too big — on my shoulders to see the apes and the tigers.
Hidden between the rocks of one seemingly empty exhibit, I spotted a snow leopard, face pressed against a boulder. The animal's steady gaze caused a young couple standing next to me to squeeze together tighter, and I left them there, kissing and giggling.
Over at the tortoise exhibit, I found an art student sketching the hexagonal and pentagonal patterns in the reptiles' massive shells. And I saw children admiring the newly hatched baby Komodo dragons and the faint rainbow colors in their scales.
The zoo hosts 200,000 schoolchildren on field trips every year, a number that would be significantly larger but for the shrinking transportation budgets at our local schools.
As someone who grew up at the Greater L.A. Zoo, I'd like to thank Billy and the other elephants for enduring confinement, however comfortable, to make the zoo a better place — even though they didn't have a choice in the matter.
If you go to visit the new exhibit, Doyle has a request. She wants you to think about the past traumas suffered by its residents, especially by Jewel and Tina during their circus days.
I'd like you to take a moment to reflect on another downtrodden species, one you'll find in the crowd with you. In recent years its members have seen their habitat erode and their future diminish, but they remain resilient.
Their name: Homo sapiens californianus.