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Saturday, Mar 2, 2024

Billy: He’s an Elephant WE Won’t Forget

This month I was going to write about an important issue. The choices included the continuing international economic meltdown and how it is affecting San Fernando Valley businesses; the inability of our elected leaders in Sacramento to agree on a budget for California; or the mushrooming local deficit and its consequences for Los Angeles. But those topics all took a back seat to the most burning topic of the day: 23-year-old Billy the Elephant. Now, I like elephants just as much as the next person. They’re peaceful, lumbering giants who never forget a thing. It has been their sad lot to be the victims of poachers who would kill, and often do, for elephant tusks. They have been subjected to abuses on the part of circuses. But perhaps one of the greatest indignities foisted upon one of these mammoth (forgive the pun) mammals is the recent brouhaha over the lone elephant now inhabiting the Los Angeles Zoo. The $42 million Pachyderm Forest at the Los Angeles Zoo was first approved by the City Council in 2006. Early this year, the council voted to suspend work on the exhibit, a third of which is complete. And then, on January 28, the council voted 11 to 4 to complete the six-acre Pachyderm Forest. The final debate lasted more than four hours. That’s right, four hours! Can anyone remember a four-hour discussion in City Council about gangs, traffic congestion, the city’s disastrous budgetary situation or any of the myriad concerns Angelinos have expressed. Hats off to Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who said during the council debate, “I hope we spend four hours on the homeless, gridlock and other issues that affect our city.” And then there’s the financial side of the equation Los Angeles has already spent $12 million of the $42 million project estimate. Shutting down the project would have forced the city to repay $5 million in bond money, while completing Pachyderm Forest will cost the city $1.2 million a year in debt payments for 20 years, or a total of $24 million. The Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association, a nonprofit support group, has donated $4.8 million to the project to date and pledged an additional $6 million, which, theoretically, will allow the city to borrow that much less money, and therefore reduce the debt payments. So, the city will have to spend give or take a mere $18 million to give Billy a home. For $18 million, how many needy people could be fed and clothed by M.E.N.D.; how many people dealing with autism and other developmental disabilities could be provided services by New Horizons; how many young people could have a safe, productive after-school experience at the Boys & Girls Club of the West Valley? But only four Council members voted against the expenditure: Tony Cardenas, Bernard Parks, Jan Perry and Dennis Zine. In an “only in LA” moment, the debate has featured such elephant experts as Cher, Halle Berry, Bob Barker, Lily Tomlin, Robert Culp, Goldie Hawn and Kevin Nealon, most of whom, of course, have years of experience in dealing with creatures with thick hides. The Los Angeles Zoo’s official website, which has espoused the case for the Pachyderm Forest, includes the heartwarming story of Slash (formerly of Guns N’ Roses) visiting the zoo and promoting completion of the project. Based on his vast knowledge of animal life, he is quoted on the website as saying, “I just want everybody to try to support this cause because it’s very important.” That sure tugged at my heartstrings. But if there’s one person who really knows what she’s talking about when it comes to elephants, it’s Dame Daphne Sheldrick, chairwoman of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya, the recipient of numerous awards for her wildlife conservation work. CBS’ “60 Minutes” has aired two highly positive stories about her and her successes in saving elephants. Her wildlife refuge has successfully rehabilitated more than 70 orphan elephants. She wrote of the Pachyderm Forest controversy: “It has been scientifically established that elephants are ‘human’ in terms of emotion, a finding I wholeheartedly endorse. Gregarious creatures, they have a strong sense of family and of death; they form friendships that span a lifetime. Like humans, they need the companionship and comfort of friends. Billy has been alone since May 2007, when his companion, Ruby, the zoo’s last African elephant, was relocated to the Performing Animal Welfare Society’s 75-acre sanctuary in San Andreas, Calif. Billy should be released to join her there.” Call me crazy, but when it comes to what’s best for elephants, I’m more likely to believe Dame Sheldrick than Slash. I guess the majority of our City Council doesn’t see it that way. “Nature’s great masterpiece, an Elephant. The only harmless great thing; the giant of beasts.” Author John Donne Martin Cooper is president of Cooper Communications Inc. He is president of the Los Angeles Quality and Productivity Commission, founding president of The Executives, vice chairman of marketing for the Boys & Girls Club of the West Valley and a member of the board of the Valley Economic Alliance. He can be reached at mcooper@coopercomm.net .

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