Hector Tobar and Rosiemarie Cruz

Hector Tobar and his cousin Rosiemarie Cruz visit the Los Angeles Zoo in 1970.

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.