By Dana Bartholomew, Long Beach Press-Telegram
At the heart of the Los Angeles Zoo, at the center of one the city's priciest controversies, stands what may be the world's largest shower.
When the water hits the big ears next fall, the 25-foot waterfall being built at the $42 million Pachyderm Forest will help launch one of the most advanced exhibits in the nation, zoo officials say.
"The elephants can stand right here and shower and bathe themselves," said zoo General Manager John Lewis, during a recent walk-through of the exhibit. "This is really coming along well. It'll be a great facility."
If animal activists get their way, however, the shower could be used by giraffes instead.
Now nearly half built and $17 million into its construction, what zoo officials say will be a five-star habitat to help conserve elephants is being challenged by a lawsuit that could shut it down.
Late last month, actor Robert Culp won a legal round when an appellate court allowed his suit to proceed to a jury trial. The Superior Court trial is expected to take place next summer - just months before the exhibit's scheduled completion in September 2010.
In the lawsuit, filed in August 2007, Culp and real estate agent Aaron Leider claim the zoo has confined elephants in too small a space, withheld medical care, and used bull hooks and electric shock to control them.
They also maintained that the zoo's new 3.7-acre exhibit is too small -
and its surface too hard - for a humane elephant house. The suit also
maintains the project is a waste of taxpayers' money.
"The lawsuit is focused upon stopping illegal abuse and injury of elephants," said Culp's lawyer, David B. Casselman.
"There are a number of cases of California construing the statutory basis upon which we filed this lawsuit," he said. "Although they do not involve elephants, there is ample legal justification for this lawsuit to proceed."
He said the multimillion-dollar exhibit could easily be used to house giraffes or smaller animals - a position disputed by the zoo officials.
While some legal scholars doubted whether the lawsuit will prevail, city officials have said they will ardently defend it.
The zoo is now home to just one elephant, Billy, a 23-year-old Asian bull. The new exhibit could house up to 11 elephants, although zoo officials expect far fewer.
"I saw Billy the other day, he looks good," said Councilman Tom LaBonge, whose district contains the zoo. "He's getting more space. He wants a couple of girls.
"I'm not satisfied until this project is completed and the proper number of elephants call Griffith Park their home."
The exhibit, twice approved by the City Council, is larger than most elephant exhibits in the United States. The new Elephant Odyssey at the San Diego Zoo, for comparison, has 2.5 acres for eight elephants.
Lewis eyed the 6-acre compound that will contain the Pachyderm Forest, a conservation habitat for Asian elephants that is 44 percent completed.
Taking shape at the entrance is an introduction plaza, near a large pool where elephants will be able to swim. On the periphery will be areas themed for Asian elephant habitats in the wild - Thai, Cambodian, Indian and Chinese.
An adjustable deep pool will help teach future calves to swim.
In the center rises a two-story elephant barn - to be topped by a Thai-style peaked roof - with 17,000 square feet of flexible bull, cow and calf stalls and the medical equipment to weigh and treat them.
And throughout the grounds, and in crevices being built into its waterfalls, are pockets for "elephant enrichment items" - food - that will allow them to forage as they do in the wild.
And with only 30,000 Asian elephants living in the brush, the zoo hopes to breed them and to verse the public on a vital need to conserve them.
As the Bronx and London zoos now raise money to save gorillas in the wild, the L.A. Zoo will house a kiosk to elicit funds to help Asian elephants around the world.
"Look there," said Lewis, pointing toward a row of bamboo in the foreground. "This could be Southeast Asia. And the elephants will be out here.
"A lot of people will never get the opportunity to see the elephants in their habitat, so we're trying to maintain that connection to the wild - and, hopefully, generate interest and empathy from the public."
The animal rights critics don't buy it. They contend 14 elephants have met early deaths at the zoo and its emerging exhibit is too small for the pachyderms.
"The exhibit is a waste of money," said Melya Kaplan, executive director of Voice for the Animals. "It's a waste of lives. ... The zoo has been put on notice there is a trial. The fact that they're continuing to build is insane."
Legal scholars say that although Culp may have the advantage of a jury trial, there is no national precedent for closing a major elephant exhibit.
The zoo's past treatment of elephants will not be on trial, they said, but whether pachyderms will be housed in an unfit or damaging exhibit - whether its surface is too hard, or its corral too small.
Richard Cupp, an animal law expert at the Pepperdine University School of Law who has studied the Culp case, said Los Angeles may be in a strong legal position because its previous exhibits have not been declared substandard and because its new exhibit may be bigger and better than most zoos.
"This could be a landmark case, particularly if the jury comes back and makes a factual determination that this exhibit is inadequate," Cupp said. "That would have strong implications for other zoos across the country."