Villaraigosa may approve $39 million elephant site
It's billed as the ultimate elephant exhibit: a world-class animal house and habitat for three elephants at the Los Angeles Zoo.
But some critics say the proposed pachyderm exhibit, to be considered by the City Council on Wednesday, will cost far more than the $39 million cited by the city.
"I think it's going to cost an easy $50 million," said Catherine Doyle, founder of Los Angeles Alliance for Elephants. "I don't think the taxpayers in Los Angeles will find this acceptable."
Doyle was one of several animal-welfare activists to campaign Monday to cancel the exhibit and send the city's three elephants to an accredited sanctuary. Last week, two city committees voted overwhelmingly to endorse the proposed exhibit.
Once forecast to cost $19 million for two acres, the proposed Elephants of Surin would increase the animals' space from a half-acre to 3 1/2 acres and add lush forests, grassland, ponds and even waterfalls.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who once promised animal-rights activists that he would retire city elephants to an accredited sanctuary, might endorse the exhibit instead.
"He is encouraged by the council's support of 5-to-1 last week," said Joe Ramallo, a spokesman for the mayor. "Ultimately, the decision by the mayor and the council is in the best interest of the elephants."
Plans call for the project to be financed with $17.7 million in park bond funds and $14 million borrowed from the city's Municipal Investment Corp.
The remaining cost would be covered by $4.5 million given by the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association and a $2.3 million private gift.
Both Villaraigosa's office and Los Angeles Zoo General Manager John Lewis promised an exhibit either at, or under, budget.
"Our intent is not to spend every nickel, but to build the best exhibit possible," Lewis said. "It's going to be one of the best for the animals and the public."
Lewis said the exhibit, likely to contain between six and eight elephants, would likely be finished by mid-2008.
Critics, however, say the cost estimate doesn't include $8.5 million in debt service on the 20-year city loan or the cost of relocating animals to make more space for elephants.
"Some of this money can be used for police protection, programs for seniors, traffic signals and fixing the parks as well," Doyle said.
Last week, Bob Barker, animal activist and host of "The Price Is Right," addressed City Hall to recommend a sanctuary. On Monday, "Stand By Me" actor Corey Feldman weighed in outside City Hall.
"It's simply not big enough; it's simply not fair," the actor said.
"The price is wrong," added Councilman Dennis Zine, who advocated a sanctuary. "The $40 million is too expensive."
Councilman Tom LaBonge, however, said it would be money well spent.
"It's for the children," he said. "What are cities for? There's no question that it's expensive, but the elephants deserve this commitment, to have a world-class zoo."
- City News Service contributed to this report.