Decision delayed on elephant exhibit

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES The fight over the new elephant exhibit at the L.A. Zoo took center stage at the City Council meeting.

The City Council delayed a controversial decision on whether to shut down the current elephant exhibit and a new $42 million exhibit being built to house pachyderms.

The issue was sent back to the Arts, Park, Health and Aging Committee, which will identify alternative funds that could be used to complete the project and study the possibility of transferring the zoo's lone elephant, Billy, to a sanctuary.

The issue will be back before the City Council by Jan. 24.

The $42 million project is 30 percent complete and would provide a home several times larger than the current home for elephants like Billy, the lone elephant at the zoo.

Animal rights activists and celebrities, including Bob Barker, Halle Berry and Goldie Hawn, argued the new exhibit would still be too confining and depressing for elephants that normally walk dozens of miles in the wild.

Activists said that given the zoo's bad history with elephants, including several deaths over the years, the project just needs to go away, and an animal sanctuary should be developed somewhere else.

However, some council members, including Councilman Tom LaBonge whose district includes the zoo, argue that it is important to keep the popular exhibit open. LaBonge said that for struggling families, it's cheaper to go to the zoo than many theme parks.

On Monday, the Budget and Finance Committee debated for three hours on the fiscal implications of the exhibit.

Of the $42 million, $12 million has been spent. Councilman Bernard Parks, who chairs the committee, said moving ahead to complete the project is not a fiscally responsible decision when the city is facing a $110 million deficit.

"I'm concerned that we (will) end up building an elephant exhibit to nowhere because if we don't know where the funds are going to come from to maintain it, if we don't know where the funds are going to come from to inhabit it ... the issue that you look at in the long and short-term is can we afford it today," Parks said.

Two months ago, Councilman Tony Cardenas proposed that the elephant exhibit be shut down, arguing that elephants need room to walk and typically suffer debilitating foot problems inside zoos. Instead, the councilman proposed that the city fund a 60-acre elephant sanctuary in Los Angeles County.

The exhibit was designed to hold up to five adult Asian elephants and three of their offspring, with more than 3 1/2 acres for the elephants to roam around, plus two pools and a waterfall on the six-acre site.

City News Service contributed to this story.

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