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Elephants will stay at L.A. Zoo, council decides [UPDATED]

January 28, 2009 |  1:04 pm

Elephant Elephants will remain at the Los Angeles Zoo, the City Council decided today, voting 11 to 4 to complete construction of the six-acre, $42-million Pachyderm Forest that opponents said is too small and too expensive.

Zoo supporters screamed with delight after the vote, which marked a turnaround for the council; last year, it had signaled it was ready to kill the project. The decision came after several months of impassioned hearings, rallies and news conferences on both sides of the issue.

There were even dueling offers of money: The zoo’s fundraising arm offered $14.5 million (above the $5 million it had committed initially) to defray some of the city’s financial responsibility. On the other side, retired game show host Bob Barker offered $1.5 million to pay the cost of moving the zoo’s lone elephant to a sanctuary.

In the packed council chambers, the crowd was emotional and tense, cheering the speakers they approved and booing those they didn’t. Opponents of the exhibit marshaled celebrities, including Cher, Lily Tomlin and Robert Culp, who called himself not an animal activist but a taxpayer who assailed the money going “to this shameless political boondoggle.” Opponents believe the zoo’s exhibit cannot fulfill the complex space and social needs of the world’s largest land mammal.

Zoo supporters believe the exhibit is world-class. “No disrespect, but if you want to know about a concert, talk to Cher,” zookeeper Joshua Sisk told council members. “If you want to know about the zoo, let’s talk to professionals at the zoo.”

Updated at 1:10 p.m.: Zoo director John Lewis walked out of council chambers with people shaking his hand, hugging him and offering congratulations.

When asked why a council that last month was willing to close down the exhibit, at least temporarily, voted so overwhelmingly today to continue it, he said, “I think it was several things,” citing the zoo fundraising arm’s financial offer.  And, he said, “just the staff coming out in force and clearing up animal-care issues was part of it. Also, showing the council that the community was for it.”

During today’s public hearing, a zoo education manager with a group of high school students presented the council with sacks containing 12,700 cards from citizens asking that the elephant exhibit go forward.

-- Carla Hall

Photo credit: Los Angeles Times

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