L.A.'s Pachyderm Forest should be built

What's a trip to the zoo without a glimpse of an elephant? Increasingly common.

Acknowledging that traditional elephant exhibits are inadequate to the point of cruelty -- small, spare, with foot-punishing floors -- zoos have chosen divergent directions. Some, including the Chicago, San Francisco and venerable Bronx zoos, are closing or making plans to close their elephant exhibits altogether. Others are building bigger enclosures, with room for the elephants to walk -- they roam many miles a day in the wild -- and variety to engage their considerable intelligence lest they literally be bored to death.

The Los Angeles Zoo has chosen the latter approach. Its planned $42-million, 3.6-acre Pachyderm Forest was $12 million into construction when Councilman Tony Cardenas called instead for sending the zoo's lone Asian elephant, Billy, to a sanctuary in San Andreas. Cardenas and animal-rights activists, including a bevy of celebrities, contend that the new exhibit is still too small and that the zoo's plans for bringing in a few female elephants to mate with Billy would perpetuate a long-standing cycle of premature elephant deaths and failed breeding attempts.

Despite legitimate concerns about the welfare of zoo elephants, Pachyderm Forest should be completed. The L.A. Zoo has gone to great lengths to design a hospitable home for Billy and the other elephants it hopes to acquire. Three years ago, we advised against the project, saying the city should not spend millions on an enclosure that might prove too small. But having made the decision and invested considerable money, and with new private funding coming forward, the City Council should stick to its plans.

Elephants aren't as tough as they look. Their thick hides mask emotionally thin skins. They are particularly social animals, not meant for a life of solitude. They thrive on variety and exercise, which they get in the wild by continually foraging for food. Standing for long periods on hard surfaces makes them prone to crippling foot and leg injuries. A study published in December rattled zoo cages worldwide, finding that zoo elephants in Europe lived less than half as long as their counterparts in the wild or those working in logging camps. They suffered from foot problems, obesity and stress, which showed up in repetitive motions such as pacing or trunk swaying. Those were dismaying findings, though some of the statistics dated back 50 years, when zoo conditions were much less humane.

Animal activists interpret Billy's tendency to bob his head as a perfect example of a stress response; zookeepers counter with animal psychologists' reports saying his bobbing is just a habit. The activists also point to records showing that, of the elephants that have died at the L.A. Zoo since 1975, a majority were younger than 20, while elephants in the wild typically live more than twice that long. But since the early 1990s, when the zoo stopped confining its elephants in a barnovernight, none of the three elephants that died was under the age of 30.

Breeding is another worry. Of the nine Asian elephants born in accredited North American zoos from January 2003 to April 2005, six died within that period.

If it were clear that these scenarios would be repeated in Pachyderm Forest, the City Council would be right to stop construction, even having previously approved it. But that's not the case. The newer enclosures, along with better-informed elephant-keeping techniques, haven't been around long enough to measure their success and shouldn't be judged until they have had a chance to prove themselves.

In addition to bigger spaces -- the Oakland Zoo provides its four African elephants with six acres; Elephant Odyssey at the San Diego Zoo, set to open later this year, will house eight Asian elephants on 2.5 acres -- the new programs provide larger social groups and more physical and mental exercise. At the Oakland Zoo, widely praised for replicating a "natural" existence as much as possible, food is hidden in unexpected places so the elephants will get more exercise looking for it and the mental stimulation of finding it. Feeding goes on throughout the day, mimicking the daylong foraging of wild elephants. The L.A. Zoo plans a similar operation.

Zoo officials are, of course, intent on polishing their zoos' images and drawing visitors -- and nothing draws crowds like endangered mega-fauna superstars such as elephants and pandas. The issue, though, isn't whether the public has some sort of inherent right to see elephants in zoos; animals should not be made to suffer for humans' entertainment. Nor do we accept the argument that people have to see animals up close to support conservation efforts. Even though it is impossible to keep a blue or gray whale in an aquarium, an impassioned save-the-whales movement has made major strides in protecting the marine mammals. The issue is whether there is a way to balance elephants' comfort with the zoos' education and entertainment missions. The L.A. Zoo should be applauded, not punished, for trying to do that. Rather, activists should focus on closing substandard elephant exhibits.

The Los Angeles Zoo is running up a mammoth tab on Pachyderm Forest. Other zoos have managed to do more with less money. But because private fundraising is expected to minimize the impact on the city's general fund, the zoo should be allowed to complete its project. At the same time, the City Council should demand regular updates. That would include making sure the zoo manages to acquire compatible female elephants and solicits annual reports from impartial veterinarians on the elephants' well-being. If premature deaths and disappointing birth data continue to plague captive elephants, then it will be time to talk about ending the era of zoo elephants, no matter how much money has been spent on luxe accommodations.