LOS ANGELES -- Cheers and applause erupted at City Hall on Wednesday as the Los Angeles City Council voted to continue construction of the Pachyderm Forest at the zoo, despite calls from opponents to abandon the project and move the zoo's lone elephant to a sanctuary.
The council chamber was standing room only during the two-hour public hearing as zoo keepers and union representatives urged council members to continue with the elephant exhibit.
On the other side, a parade of celebrities -- including Bob Barker, Cher, Lily Tomlin and Kevin Nealon -- spoke out against the exhibit.
"I'm not a fanatic, I just love animals," Cher said.
The singer responded to the notion that zoos have elephants simply because that is the way it has always been in the United States.
"It doesn't make it right because we've had other things we're ashamed of. We had slavery and you know, it wasn't right," she said.
Despite the high-profile opposition, council members made the decision with an eye on the city's checkbook. Shutting down the construction project would require the city to repay $5 million in bond money within the next 60 days. Los Angeles has already spent $12 million on the exhibit.
Building the Pachyderm Forest will cost the city $1.2 million a year in debt payments beginning in 2010 and continuing for 20 years.
The Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association, which has already donated $4.8 million to the elephant exhibit, has pledged an additional $6 million, which will require the city to borrow less money and therefore cut down on those debt payments, according to a report from the City Administrative Officer.
"It's very important that we move forward to make the zoo what we all aspire it to be -- a great zoo," said Councilman Tom LaBonge, who fought to keep the Pachyderm Forest.
"It's important to have an elephant exhibit at the zoo and we all have to work harder to make it greater."
The council voted 11-4 in favor of continuing construction. Council members Tony Cardenas, Bernard Parks, Jan Perry and Dennis Zine were the dissenting votes. Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who voted against the project three years ago, this time voted in favor of the exhibit.
"The lifespan of elephants plummets dramatically and they stop breeding when confined in zoos," Cardenas said before introducing a motion to move the zoo's lone elephant, Billy, to a sanctuary and altering the Pachyderm Forest to include other pachyderms like rhinoceroses while excluding elephants.
The issue has aroused passionate debate -- generating a lawsuit, three months of public discourse, protest rallies at Los Angeles City Hall and dueling campaigns featuring various celebrities.
The Pachyderm Forest at the Los Angeles Zoo was approved by the City Council in 2006. A year later, actor Robert Culp and real estate agent Aaron Leider sued the city to stop the project, alleging zoo officials had abused elephants by withholding medical care and keeping them in confined spaces.
The lawsuit was eventually dismissed by a Los Angeles Superior Court judge who said the issues were political, not legal.
Cardenas took on the issue, urging his colleagues to end construction on the exhibit, citing concerns over the health of the elephants. Critics of zoos that house elephants say the confinement causes them depression and dramatically shortens their lives.
Last month, the council voted 13-2 to suspend work on the Pachyderm Forest, a third of which is complete. The $42 million exhibit is designed to house up to five Asian elephants and three of their offspring in a 3 1/2-acre area featuring two pools and a waterfall.
The work stoppage was designed to give LaBonge, chair of the Arts, Parks, Health and Aging Committee, time to look at alternative funding sources and other uses for the space in the event the city does not finish the exhibit.
LaBonge, a vocal supporter of the zoo, recommended Tuesday that the city continue working on the exhibit.
"I know that absolutely everybody loves elephants in this room ... everybody believes they're doing the right thing," LaBonge said at the conclusion of the 90-minute hearing.
Before making his recommendation, LaBonge heard reports on funding and alternative uses for the space.
An alternative use for the Pachyderm Forest would be to transform it into multiple exhibits for rhinoceroses, cranes, hippopotami and giraffes, according to the Bureau of Engineering. Doing so would cost at least $35 million and could take as long as five years.
Cardenas' own alternative to turn the space into a multi-species "forest" housing other pachyderms like rhinos alongside giraffes, zebras, antelopes, gazelles, rhinos, as well as ostriches, bustards and other birds.
That idea, however, was defeated in a split vote.
Critics of the Pachyderm Forest have suggested sending Billy, the zoo's only elephant, to the PAWS sanctuary in Northern California. Barker, the former host of "The Price is Right," has pledged $1.5 million to transport Billy.