Zoo without elephants would be a loss for the children of L.A.

Stand behind the curtain of bamboo just outside the paddock of the last, lone elephant at the Los Angeles Zoo and you’ll hear the daylong drumbeat of running feet.

Boys and girls yell “elefante!” and cry out “grandotote,” which is Spanish for “huge.” They ooh and ah, and ask questions of their parents in English, Korean, Tagalog and many languages more.

Visiting the zoo is a Los Angeles rite of passage. I started coming in the late 1960s. For my Guatemalan immigrant parents, it was one more liberating thing about living in California. They had the strange notion that bringing their son to see the animals would somehow make him smarter.

Many L.A. families still think of the zoo that way -- as a window into the larger world we want our children to know. We get angry when the window shrinks and there’s less for our kids to see.

“Why even come to the zoo if they’re going to give the animals away?” Jose Cardenas tells me as he holds his 3-year-old son, Nathan. He says this as we stand looking at the zoo’s most controversial resident: Billy, the Malaysian-born ambassador of the species Elephas maximus.

Billy the elephant is the protagonist of a long-running City Hall drama. The council chamber has filled more than once for debates about his fate. Most of those who show up are advocates for elephants, not people like Jose Cardenas.

As a lifelong observer of the city’s political life, I wasn’t surprised when the council voted last week to take a big step toward a zoo without elephants. History shows you can take away a lot from the working families of Los Angeles without hearing them make an organized complaint.

Animal activists say Billy’s current enclosure, at 0.57 acres, is too small. Many visitors say he looks lonely: Two of Billy’s companions have died in recent years, and another was sent off to a sanctuary. So the Los Angeles Zoo has been building a new, $42-million compound for Billy and a couple of future companions.

The “Pachyderm Forest” exhibit would be 3.6 acres, which is significantly larger than the field at Dodger Stadium. It’s still not big enough, say the animal rights activists. Spurred on by their vocal concerns, the council vote forced the zoo to stop construction.

Like thousands of other zoo patrons, Jose Cardenas was too busy trying to earn a living to drive to the City Council hearings at which the issue was decided. He can manage to bring Nathan and the rest of his family to the zoo but three or four times a year from Palmdale. It’s a long drive for Cardenas, a 26-year-old corrections officer, but it’s worth it for the look of wonder in young Nathan’s eyes.

“I guess we’ll have to drive to the San Diego Zoo instead,” he says.

Billy’s defenders want to send him to a sanctuary. That might be good for Billy, but I think it would be a disaster for the zoo. And a subtraction from the zoo hurts all of us because of the zoo’s unique place in the life of the city.

The far-from-finished Pachyderm Forest is now a gaping hole in the heart of the 80-acre zoo. The old reptile house and other exhibits were torn down years ago to make room for the expanded elephant enclosure. Longtime visitors say they’ve grown tired of waiting for the new exhibit.

“It’s become a political football. I really don’t get it,” said Michael Weiner, 46, of Sherman Oaks. “If it’s not big enough for the elephants, what about the lions and the jaguars?”

Like me, Weiner visited the zoo as a child. Now he brings his 2-year-old daughter.

I met Weiner, a commercial real estate broker, outside Billy’s paddock just after I spoke to Cardenas, the prison guard. Strollers glided past and parents stopped to unbuckle their infant daughters and sons, lifting them to peer through a fence into a small sliver of the wild.

A Honduran family wandered past. And then a woman from India, who asked: “Is that fence really enough to keep him from stampeding?”

That’s one of the great charms of the zoo. It is, arguably, the city cultural institution whose audience best reflects the diversity of Southern California. Zoo attendance figures read a bit like the last Los Angeles County census: 45% white, 40% Latino, 7% African American and 5% Asian.

Like Los Angeles, the zoo has suffered through cycles of boom and bust. It opened in Griffith Park to great fanfare in the 1960s. A generation later it had slipped into decline.

In 1989, I brought my future wife to the Los Angeles Zoo on our first date. It was a quiet place then whose sad atmosphere didn’t quite live up to my happy childhood memories. A few years later, it briefly lost its accreditation.

Attendance bottomed out two years after the 1992 riots. The comeback began with Mayor Richard Riordan in the late 1990s. In 1998, 79% of Los Angeles voters approved Proposition CC, a $47.6-million bond measure to improve the zoo.

A series of new, audience- and animal-friendly exhibits have steadily increased attendance, including “Chimps of Mahale Mountain” in 1998 and the “Campo Gorilla Reserve” in 2007.

The elephant enclosure, with its waterfalls and mudholes, was to be the centerpiece of the zoo’s renaissance.

Now, it may never open.

I’m not happy at the wait and neither is Billy, at least according to one of his keepers, Jeff Briscoe. “He’s frustrated too,” Briscoe told me. “Ideally, we should have had him running through this exhibit years and years ago.”

Animal welfare advocates say Billy has developed a strange tic from confinement. I witnessed this tic, briefly, a rising and falling jerk of the head. Then it disappeared. How much is he suffering? Experts are divided. I’m not an expert. I do know, however, that if he’s taken to a sanctuary fewer people will get to see him. The sanctuary in Northern California that accepted Billy’s friend Ruby charges $200 to visit its public area.

Yes, I noticed the tic. But I also felt the sense of awe that swept through the dozen or so people watching him with me Sunday as he twisted the muscles of his trunk and marched across his paddock.

It was a child’s picture book come to life and a lesson in the complexity and beauty of nature.

If a city government can shift direction for the sake of an elephant, I thought, why can’t it also bend, shift and compromise for its children?

As I walked away down the hill, I saw more children coming. On that day, an elephant was waiting for them.

Tobar is a Times staff writer.