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Elephant habitat opens at L.A. Zoo

December 16, 2010 |  7:54 am

Walls of bamboo were strung with Christmas lights, and the strains of sitar music serenaded visitors who wandered the curving pathways, sipping cocktails, past a red carpet set up for celebrities.

No, it wasn’t a Hollywood premiere. The Los Angeles Zoo on Wednesday night held a gala opening for its  Elephants of Asia habitat.

“We thought the elephants were such stars that this was the way to do it,” said zoo director John Lewis who had shed his usual suit for an argyle sweater and slacks in a crowd dressed casually and warmly for the December night air of Griffith Park.

After years of controversy, opposition from animal-welfare advocates and the scrutiny of City Council members, the $42-million, 6-acre exhibit for Asian elephants is opening to the public.

“After being in front of City Council and fighting for this and seeing it — it’s a really great feeling,” said Laura Wasserman, a trustee of the zoo’s fundraising arm, the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Assn., which has contributed about $20 million of that $42-million price tag.

She stood — on crutches, the result of hip surgery — in front of the Wasserman Family Thai Pavilion, which  she and her husband, Casey, and their family foundation had helped build.

“Like the animal activists, I’m an animal lover. … We figured out that this can show people how to give back,” she said. (The pavilion, among other parts of the exhibit, describes conservation efforts in the wild and explains how donations help.)

Animal=welfare advocates had argued before the L.A. City Council — the L.A. Zoo is a city agency — that no matter how well-intentioned, the zoo could not mount an exhibit that would see to the needs of the world’s largest land mammals. In the wild, they roam miles each day.

Over the last few years, zoo officials — including keepers who rarely have to tangle with politicians — had appeared before the City Council to argue their case in the face of opponents and TV camera lights.

On Wednesday night, they were eager to talk about the three elephant inhabitants of the new habitat, with its acres of sand (easy on elephants' feet), a waterfall, swimming pond and rock wall. The zoo’s Asian bull elephant, 25-year-old Billy, now shares the exhibit with two female Asian elephants, Tina and Jewel.

“They seem really relaxed, they respond well to our staff, they go in and out of the barn when they’re asked,” said Jennie Becker, the zoo’s curator of mammals.

The females do not have contact with Billy; their part of the habitat is separated from his for now. But they can hear and see one another, and there’s much vocalizing between the females and Billy.

“He’s very interested in the girls,” Becker said.

The L.A. Zoo invited heads of other zoos to its opening. Scott Barton, director of the Fresno Chaffee Zoo, gave the new exhibit high marks and mused on the debate about keeping elephants in zoos.

“Kids aren’t getting out into the wild. Where else are you going to see an elephant?” said Barton.

His zoo has two Asian elephants that came from a circus. They share a third of an acre — a fraction of what the L.A. Zoo now has for its pachyderms.

“For two old circus elephants, it’s good,” said Barton. “But we want to do better.”

The true guests of honor were visible from a distance in their exhibits. As the languid vocals of the world-music group Dengue Fever wafted through the air, Tina wandered across the grass of her barely lighted enclosure slowly and stealthily as if she were keeping step with the music.

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-- Carla Hall at the L.A. Zoo

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