Guy Adams: Billy the elephant trumps the crunch

LA Notebook
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The Independent Online

At times of crisis, it's the little things that matter. So it goes that with California's government going bankrupt, unemployment approaching 10 per cent, and Barack Obama saying the word "unprecedented" an awful lot, the LA news agenda is being dominated by an elephant.

His name is Billy. He's 23. Today, as he wanders gloomily round a moth-eaten enclosure at LA Zoo, his future lies at the centre of a fierce dispute that has divided some of the most glamorous figures in Hollywood. At issue: a plan to upgrade Billy's living quarters at the Zoo to a swanky "Pachyderm Forest", containing swimming pools, mud holes and a waterfall which will be seven times the size of his current abode. The $42m (£29m) project is already a third complete. But animal rights lobbyists, who dislike zoos in general, are campaigning for it to be abandoned and Billy, below, moved to a sanctuary upstate where he can stretch his legs, and interact with other elephants. Supporters of the move boast solid celebrity backing, including Goldie Hawn and Halle Berry. But so do their opponents: on Monday, the musician Slash led a protest march through Downtown LA, calling for Billy to stay put.

Both sides also have some right on their side: on the one hand, zoos make large mammals sad and lonely, and result in them dying younger; on the other, they're valuable educational tools which represent a last ditch for conservation and aid research. Last night, LA's city council, which owns the zoo, was due to weigh up both sides of this topical debate and vote on a motion to scrap the Pachyderm Forest altogether, leaving taxpayers to write off the $15m already spent on it.

Whatever they decide, the issue will no doubt be referred to the courts (where America has its final say on almost all serious ethical debates). So Billy the elephant may shortly, and ironically, become LA's most famous white elephant.

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