Tusk, Tusk: Elephant Expert Scolds City Over Enclosure

LOS ANGELES -- While parts of Los Angeles continue to smolder following the recent firestorm, there is an issue that has been simmering in this town for years and is about to come to be decided -- once again.

What should Los Angeles do about it's largest residents?

Thirteen elephants have died at the LA Zoo over the past 30 or so years. There have been calls for the city to follow San Francisco and the famed Bronx Zoo and close down the La Zoo's  pachyderm enclosure. 

Some studies find elephants need more room to roam and standing idle leads to foot and respitory ailments that can be fatal.

In 2006, the LA City Council decided to invest $40 million not to evict its elephants but to expand their habitat.  The "Pachyderm Forest" is four acres of space -- up from two -- including pools and waterfalls. It could be finished by 2009, but it's $2 million over-budget and behind schedule.

Two months after the council approved the project, an elephant named Gita suddenly died.

Tony Cardenas, the councilmember who started the city's first animal cruelty task force, says he made a mistake. He voted to approve the elephant expansion and now regrets it.

Cardenas has a plan: stop the expansion immediately; send the one remaining elephant to a sanctuary in Northern Calfornia; acquire 60 to 100 acres to build the nation's first municipal elephant sanctuary.

Convincing colleagues to change their minds is a tough sell. The focus these days is on the "Big E," that would stand for  the "economy" and not the "elephants."

The opposition is led by City Councilman Tom LaBonge, who is firmly committed to the Zoo and its desire to move forward with expansion not eviction.

On Tuesday, leading elephant expert, Dr. Joyce Poole,  endorsed the Cardenas plan after observing the zoo's lone elephant, Billy. On Wednesday, Cardenas will make one last public appeal outside City Hall and then head into Council Chambers for the debate.

Cardenas has also enlisted some Hollywood help including Kim Basinger, Lily Tomlin and, of course, long-time animal activist, Bob Barker. La Bonge will counter with actress Betty White and LA Zoo director, John Lewis.

Mayor Villaraigosa has long said he believes that elephants should be in sanctuaries and not in zoos. However, the mayor is staying neutral on this one.

The vote comes to the council Wednesday.

Elephant Expert Gives Advice

An elephant expert who has studied pachyderms for more than 30 years recommended Tuesday that the city of Los Angeles scrap its  enclosure under construction at the zoo and instead open a multimedia exhibit with no live elephants.

Joyce Poole, who has a doctorate in animal behavior, made her recommendations alongside City Councilman Tony Cardenas, who has proposed that work stop on the 6-acre Pachyderm Forest. Instead, he wants the city to open a 60-acre elephant sanctuary in an outlying area.

Poole said that Billy bobs his head and sways in a way that is "definitely pathological."

"I know that some people believe that elephants do that in the wild, but having observed elephants for many, many years, seeing perhaps 10,000 different individuals ... I have never seen head-bobbing and I have never seen swaying," Poole said. "This type of behavior is pathological. It is a result of being in a confined space."

Zoo director John Lewis has acknowledged that head-bobbing may not be a typical behavior, it is normal for Billy who has done it since he was young.

Instead of housing elephants at the zoo in Griffith Park, Poole suggested the city create a multimedia exhibit to educate people about elephants.

"I think that you could do an absolutely fabulous exhibit at the zoo for elephants that didn't actually involve any living elephants," she said.

"Say you get an IMAX theater or you have a Web cam and you interact with a project in the wild and contribute toward conservation in the wild, that would really be helping elephants."

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