Zoo’s $42m plan turns into great white elephant

A 23-year-old elephant called Billy, with friends in the highest circles of Hollywood, was at the centre of a bitter custody battle today as Los Angeles Council prepared to halt work on his new state-of-the art enclosure at the city's zoo.

Following a long campaign by animal rights activists and stars, including Goldie Hawn and Halle Berry, council-members seemed set to suspend construction of a $42 million luxury "Pachyderm Forest" which he was supposed to move into next year.

Instead, they ruled that Billy must be transferred to a 60-acre "sanctuary" in upstate California, where he can stretch his legs and interact with other elephants without being plagued by the foot problems and psychological trauma that blighted many predecessors at LA Zoo.

There is but one problem: the sanctuary does not exist, and no-one seems to know where it may eventually be sited, who will own the facility, or how long it will take to construct.

In the meantime, Billy, an Asian bull elephant, will be forced to make do with somewhat sub-standard temporary accommodation.

The City of Los Angeles, for its part, has been left with a $12 million bill for a half-built (and now useless) six-acre elephant enclosure featuring whirlpools, mud holes and a waterfall.

The bizarre state-of-affairs, which comes at a time when the city is facing a $110 million deficit, is the latest development in a decades-old controversy surrounding the keeping of African and Asian elephants in the heart of smog-drenched California.

A dozen of the animals have died since LA Zoo began keeping them in 1968, many under the age of 20. Activists claim that their existing one-acre pen harms their physical and mental health and shortens their lives, which in the wild can last up to 70 years.

Billy is LA's last remaining elephant, and could certainly be forgiven for feeling lonely: four of his previous companions have died there since 1992 (at the ages of 13, 29, 39 and 48) and critics say he is now exhibiting signs of stress, constantly bobbing his head.

"[There has] been a lot of elephant deaths, and it points to something really wrong going on there," said Melya Kaplan, director of the lobby group Voice for the Animals.

The zoo maintains that its elephant accommodation has been vastly improved in recent years. The planned "Pachyderm Forest" will become an international tourist attraction, they claim, and solve any psychological problems Billy may have been suffering.

"Science shows that elephants in accredited zoos are now as long lived as elephants in the wild," said spokesman Jason Jacobs, who added that captive breeding may one day help save the endangered creatures from extinction.

But animal rights activists appear to have won the battle to convince LA's lawmakers to force Billy's current owners to give him up, on the grounds that the only acceptable form of captivity for elephants, which roam hundreds of miles in the wild, is a large semi-rural sanctuary.

The controversy had been brewing for several years. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa halted construction shortly after taking office in 2005, so that a study could be carried out into its future. The report eventually recommended that the project should move forward, and LA's council approved the "Pachyderm Forest" in 2006.

Their apparent recent change of heart follows a decision by activists to use celebrity supporters to individually lobby council-members to vote for the elephant enclosure to be scrapped.

On one occasion last month, Councilman Herb Wesson told colleagues that he needed time to consider where his loyalties lay before casting his vote, after receiving an early-morning personal phone call from the actress Halle Berry.

"I have some further questions and I am not prepared to vote today. Halle Berry calling me had nothing to do with it," he said.

To many residents of the cash-strapped city, the expensive controversy now leaves a bad taste in the mouth, though. Some have dubbed the now-defunct "Pachyderm forest" the "elephant enclosure to nowhere," others have joked that it represents a literal white elephant.