Council Halts LA Zoo's Pachyderm Forest

LOS ANGELES -- Work on the partially built Pachyderm Forest at the Los Angeles Zoo was temporarily halted Wednesday by the Los Angeles City Council as the city explores alternative funding for the $42 million exhibit.

The 13-2 vote -- Councilmen Richard Alarcon and Dennis Zine were the dissenters -- came after one hour of discussion during a session attended by more visitors and city staff than any other council meeting this year.

The council's Arts, Parks, Health and Aging Committee will look at the fiscal implications of a commitment made by the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association to pay the interest on one set of funds used to build the exhibit. That would cost $1.2 million a year for 20 years and would relieve the city of the obligation to pay back those funds.

Committee members will also look at whether the partially completed exhibit could be used to house another type of animal and the status of other zoos that have decided to get rid of their elephants.

The committee is scheduled to complete its work by Jan. 24.

"(The elephant) does belong in the Los Angeles Zoo. It does belong for everybody to see," said City Councilman Tom LaBonge, who supports keeping pachyderms at the Los Angeles Zoo.

Councilman Tony Cardenas, who proposed that the elephant exhibit be shut down over concerns that the huge animals need room to walk and typically suffer debilitating foot problems inside zoos, said he appreciates the work of GLAZA but questioned whether the private organization would be able to take on part of the city's costs.

"We've never had a third party step into our place. It's going to be very difficult," Cardenas said.

"I'm going to continue until I prevail to make sure that the city of Los Angeles does the humane thing, the right thing, and we will have a world-class zoo but we will not continue to allow elephants to suffer at our hands," he said.

The City Administrative Office estimates that $12 million has been spent on the project since it was approved in 2006. The city of Los Angeles would have to repay $10 million of that money and the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association would take back $4.85 million in private donations.

The zoo spends $156,000 a year to maintain the current elephant exhibit. If the Pachyderm Forest is completed, the zoo would spend an additional $459,000 a year, plus a one-time cost of $63,500, to take care of an additional four elephants.

The CAO recommends the city proceed with the project.

But Councilman Bernard Parks, who chairs the committee, said moving ahead to complete the project is not fiscally responsible 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 Monday.

The council decided to reexamine the elephant issue earlier this year, after a Los Angeles Superior Court judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by actor Robert Culp and real estate agent Aaron Leider against the city.

The suit accused zoo authorities of withholding medical care, keeping elephants in confined spaces and using bull hooks and electric shock to control the animals. But the judge said the issues were political in nature, rather than legal.

Opponents of the Pachyderm Forest argue that elephants need a soft surface to walk on to prevent foot problems and an environment that stimulates them mentally.

The zoo's elephant, Billy, lives alone and critics point to his frequent head-bobbing as a sign he has a psychotic disorder. Zoo director John Lewis, however, said the head-bobbing behavior is typical for Billy.

The new exhibit -- which is about 30 percent complete -- is 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.

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