The Los Angeles Zoo has been working for years on its new "Pachyderm Forest," a $42 million exhibit designed to give elephants the space they need to beat the blues of captivity.
But even before the exhibit is finished, celebrity opponents and the tight economy are threatening to turn the project into a white elephant.
On Wednesday, the City Council is expected to vote on whether to scuttle the six-acre exhibit that would be seven times larger than the current enclosure and feature open space with pools, mud holes and a waterfall to help pachyderms pass the time.
The meeting comes amid criticism from animal rights activists and celebrities, including Bob Barker, Halle Berry and Goldie Hawn, that the new exhibit would still be too confining and depressing for the behemoths that walk dozens of miles a day in the wild.
Meanwhile, a city budget committee has recommended that construction be stopped as City Hall wrestles with its economic troubles. About $12 million already has been spent on the project, which is 30 percent completed.
On the eve of the vote, the private Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association, which has already given $4.8 million for the exhibit, announced a pledge of an additional $1.2 million to help overcome budget difficulties.
The zoo has had a history of problems with elephants. Officials say about a dozen have died since 1968.
Seven didn't make it to age 20 — a fraction of the 70 years they can live in the wild, said Melya Kaplan, executive director of the Voice for the Animals activist group.
"It's a lot of elephants' deaths, and it points to something really wrong going on there," Kaplan said. "We can't ignore that."
Zoo spokesman Jason Jacobs said the facility has vastly improved its elephant program over the years and has been hailed as a model by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the organization that accredits the nation's zoological institutions.
An Asian elephant can live to 65, but its life expectancy is about 45 years, Jacobs said. Since the new protocols were implemented in 1992, four elephants have died at ages 13, 29, 39 and 48, he said.
"Science shows that elephants in accredited zoos are now as long-lived as elephants in the wild," he said.
Zoo officials believe elephants will do better in "Pachyderm Forest" — one of the largest planned elephant enclosures in the country.
Opponents, however, have argued that enclosing elephants harms their physical and mental health and shortens their lives. They want to see the Los Angeles elephant exhibit shut down altogether, and its one remaining elephant, Billy, sent to a sanctuary.
They cite Billy's constant head-bobbing as proof he is stressed out by his cramped environment.
Jacobs said, however, that the 23-year-old elephant bobs his head when he's anticipating food or is in the company of his keepers. Billy is in good health, Jacobs said.
Councilman Tom LeBonge, whose district includes the zoo, said it was important to keep the popular exhibit open.
"More families are going to come to the Los Angeles Zoo in tough economic times," he said. "For one admission to Disneyland, a whole family could have a good afternoon at the zoo.
An earlier version of this report included an inaccurate reference to the cost of the project.