Twelve cities across the country have already closed their elephant exhibits because the exhibits do not have enough space to keep the animals healthy. But Los Angeles may be moving in a new direction -- expansion rather than eviction -- with Cardenas' proposal to build an elephant sanctuary in the city of Los Angeles, possibly in the foothills.
"There is nothing wrong with our zoo," Cardenas said. "We have a lot of good people who work there. So, if we combine their talents with something more appropriate -- 50 to 100 acres -- then I think we have something here ... I think it’s a win-win for the elephants and everybody involved."
Cardenas has lined up a long list of actors and Hollywood luminaries in support of his plan. And on Tuesday morning, a zoo official also voiced support for the plan.
The zoo's under-construction elephant exhibit, less than four acres, is expected to cost a little less than $40 million and is set to be completed next year. Expanding the elephant exhibit at the zoo was approved by the City Council, with little opposition, in April 2006.
But only $10 million of the total $40 million cost of the exhibit has been spent so far. Cardenas estimates it would take only $5 million to $10 million to open an elephant sanctuary on the edge of the city or in its foothills. He said it would save the zoo money and possibly double its revenue by putting the sanctuary on an additional site.
In 2006, two months after the council approved the plan to build a new exhibit, an Asian elephant at the zoo collapsed, becoming the 13th elephant to die at the L.A. Zoo since 1975.
"Elephants don't live in zoos," Cardenas said. "What I realize now, elephants die in zoos."
Cardenas said he now realizes that adding a couple of acres, as the new exhibit does, still does not provide enough room to roam.
"They want to put as many as 10 elephants there. It's only three acres of roaming space. That is not enough for one elephant, much less 10," Cardenas said about the exhibit that the council approved.
"What people don't realize when they see elephants in a zoo is that they create these foot issues and arthritis that leads to their death," Cardenas said.
Cardenas now wants to convince his colleagues to stop the zoo's plan for expansion and take a different route.
"(It) is unprecedented. We are looking toward creating a satellite facility -- a sanctuary here in Los Angeles so that children and people can see these majestic, beautiful animals," Cardenas said.
Currently, there is only one elephant, Billy, at the Los Angeles Zoo. Bob Barker pledged $100,000 on Tuesday to move Billy if the current zoo exhibit is shut down. His pledge is matched by a $100,000 commitment from an animal rights activist.
Last year, an elephant named Ruby was sent to a sanctuary in Northern California. Cardenas traveled 350 miles to see her in San Andreas a few weeks ago.
"When I saw Ruby up there -- she is a totally different elephant," Cardenas said.