I traveled to the Los Angeles Zoo last week to observe Billy the Asian elephant and explore the Pachyderm Forest -- a state-of-the-art habitat being built for Billy and other endangered Asian elephants. I wanted to see for myself the project that had caused so much ink to be spilled on the pages of The Times, including columnist Hector Tobar's Dec. 9 piece, "Zoo without elephants would be a loss for the children of L.A.,” and my friend Daphne Sheldrick's Jan. 5 Op-Ed article, "L.A. Zoo should free Billy the elephant.”
A small group of activists and celebrities want to stop the zoo's $42-million project, which is about one-third complete. These activists -- who have used inflammatory sound bites, such calling the forest "Guantanamo" for elephants -- have made Billy their latest pawn in a larger, transparent campaign to eliminate zoos altogether.
For three decades, I have worked to promote wildlife conservation, educate the public and advocate for animals all over the world. Having witnessed elephants living in zoos, sanctuaries and in the wild, I can unequivocally say that if you can find a better home for elephants than the Pachyderm Forest, I'd love to see it.
In Los Angeles, the Pachyderm Forest will be a model of humane elephant care. The city will and should be proud that it is providing the best possible treatment for Billy and other Asian elephants. It will also educate our next generation of conservationists about the dangers that threaten this majestic species with extinction.
The six-acre Pachyderm Forest takes up a huge portion of the Los Angeles Zoo -- larger than what Asian elephants enjoy today at the San Diego Wild Animal Park -- and has a roaming area larger than the playing field at Dodger Stadium. In addition to this spacious habitat, there are five full-time veterinarians and an additional crew of veterinary technicians ready to provide Billy with the best available medical care. A special area featuring an ultrasound system and an elephant sling he can walk through will make for safe, comprehensive medical exams. Special overhead walkways means keepers and researchers can observe Billy and any other Asian elephants without disturbing them as they mingle and socialize.
This is the kind of nurturing and healthcare elephants at an alternative location simply can't get. The reality is that the "wild" has changed over the years, and it isn't as glamorous as some would make it sound. The majority of animals living in the "wild" actually live in national parks or protected sanctuaries that are canvassed by armed guards.
If this small group of activists has its way, Billy will be shipped off to an elite area hundreds of miles from Los Angeles. There, it costs $200 a person to visit Billy, and then only on select days. In Los Angeles, a day at the zoo can be enjoyed year-round for roughly what it costs to see a movie. Billy would become inaccessible to Southern California's working-class families, the 20,000 schoolchildren who visit him at the zoo each month and the millions of future visitors who come to learn about the Earth's largest land mammal.
Seeing an elephant on television does not come close to the magical experience a child has seeing these beautiful creatures up close. The Pachyderm Forest will make Los Angeles a world leader in conservation education. Its presence will help tell the world about the fragile future that Asian elephants face on our planet if we don't continue to sound the alarm.
Just two years ago, the Los Angeles City Council voted 13 to 2 to build the best possible home for Asian elephants. The science of elephant care has only improved since then. The city can't afford to let a small group pressure it into forfeiting this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Billy, his future companions and the zoo's visitors.
Jack Hanna is director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Columbus, Ohio, and the host of the Emmy-winning children's show, "Jack Hanna's Into the Wild" and the syndicated "Jack Hanna's Animal Adventures."