The celebrity support behind the push to cease construction of the Los Angeles Zoo's new elephant habitat has garnered national attention. And no wonder. When Lily Tomlin proclaims "The word 'zoo' is elephant-speak for Guantanamo," the headlines practically write themselves. (Following Tomlin's lead, NBC Los Angeles oh-so-cleverly began referring to the project as 'Gitmo for Dumbo.')
Not to be out-punned, Bob Barker appeared before the L.A. City Council in November, invoking the name of his best-known gig when he said of the exhibit's $42 million cost: "The price is not right."
Barker is no stranger to animal rights issues, having used his game-show fame to promote spaying and neutering of pets. Ironically, in 1980 Barker helped the L.A. Zoo raise money, acting as auctioneer at its annual fundraising gala. Today, he's pledging his own cash toward the effort to remove Asian elephant Billy from the zoo.
Another Bob, actor Robert Culp (star of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and TV's I Spy), filed a lawsuit against the zoo in 2007, attempting to halt construction of the elephant exhibit. The judge found no basis for halting the project.
Though not appearing in person before City Council, Halle Berry used her star power to sway votes. Though he voted in favor of proceeding with Pachyderm Forest in 2006, this time around City Councilman Herb Wesson said he needed more time to consider the issue. "Halle Berry calling me had nothing to do with it," he quipped.
But there are famous faces on both sides of this debate. Betty White is a long-standing zoo supporter and board member of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association. She is known as a tireless animal advocate, "the real deal," to quote Madeline Bernstein, president of the L.A.'s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, who compared her favorably to celebs whose work with animal organizations is only skin-deep. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa named White "Ambassador to the Animals for the City of Los Angeles" in 2006, citing her lengthy list of accomplishments in the animal welfare arena. Her standing as our city's official animal ambassador should hold some weight with the council, even if she doesn't look as good in a catsuit as Halle Berry.
In a letter to zoo members, White writes, "When I believe in something, I don't just pay it lip service. I have put my heart and soul and money into this zoo, and have worked hard for the many improvements that you have witnessed over the years." She wants Billy to be the beneficiary of the same kind of habitat improvements the zoo has already provided to its orangutans, gorillas, and chimpanzees, and objects to critics who would rather see animals die in the wild than live in zoos.
(I've secretly wished we could settle the whole elephant debate by pitting Betty White against Bob Barker in a celebrity boxing match. Barker's comic skirmish with Adam Sandler in Happy Gilmore notwithstanding, my money's on Betty any day of the week.)
The latest celebrity to throw his support behind the zoo is Jack Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo. Known for his myriad appearances on late-night talk shows as well as his own series, Jack Hanna's Animal Adventures and Jack Hanna's Into the Wild, Hanna is one of the country's most recognizable animal authorities. In a statement released yesterday, Hanna opined that the zoo's new exhibit "will set a new standard for the care of elephants at zoos, providing a home that will be even larger than what Asian elephants enjoy at the San Diego Wild Animal Park. Not only will Billy and any future residents have a huge amount of room in which to roam, they will continue to enjoy 24-hour monitoring, state-of-the-art medical care, love, nurturing, and a level of attention that sanctuaries cannot provide."
The opinions of Bob & Lily & Jack & Betty might not amount to a hill of beans in this crazy city. But a hill of peanuts? Perhaps.