Alaska's only elephant here to stay

Posted: Sunday, August 15, 2004

ANCHORAGE Alaska's only elephant will be staying at the Alaska Zoo instead of going to a warmer climate with the understanding that her life will be enriched with better accommodations and activities, such as aerobic workouts on the first elephant treadmill.

At 9,120 pounds, Maggie could stand to lose a few pounds maybe more than a thousand actually, zoo director Tex Edwards said Thursday, announcing a decision to keep Maggie instead of moving her to the 550-acre North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, N.C.

"Elephants are just like people, they will be as lazy as they can be and still eat," Edwards said.

Maggie, a 22-year-old African elephant, arrived at the zoo in 1983 as an infant when her herd in Kruger National Park in South Africa was culled. She joined Annabelle, a more easygoing Asian elephant.

Questions have circulated for years about the wisdom of keeping elephants in Anchorage where temperatures can dip to 20 below zero in winter.

But the big question arose on Dec. 14, 1997, when Annabelle, born in India in 1964, died at age 33 of a chronic foot infection. People, including zoo staff, asked if Maggie would be lonely and if she should be moved to another zoo with more elephants. The American Zoological Association recommends that female elephants be kept in groups of three or more.

A five-person zoo committee looked at the Maggie issue for more than a year. Edwards said nine elephant experts were consulted from zoos and animal parks in the United States and Canada. The consensus was that Maggie was healthy and content, he said.

"None of them believed climate was an issue," Edwards said. "They were more concerned about her quality of life and level of activity."

Zoo board members Wednesday voted 8-1, with two abstentions, in favor of keeping Maggie, as long as certain things were done. The improvements, to be made in two to three years, will cost an estimated $500,000.

Designing and building the first elephant treadmill could cost between $150,00-$250,000, Edwards said. The zoo is talking with mining experts because they know about heavy loads, conveyers and belts.

"We hope to be the first zoo in the world with an elephant treadmill," Edwards said.

Elephant keeper Rob Smith has been taking Maggie on walks around the zoo's 20-acre property after-hours for exercise.

Off-the-ground feeding stations will be built so that Maggie will have to stretch for her food.

"She won't get any food she doesn't work for," Edwards said.

Maggie's 1,200 square-foot-barn will get better ventilation and a softer floor, perhaps rubber over the concrete, Edwards said.

Staff time with Maggie will increase from eight hours to between 12 and 16 hours a day.

Board member Anita Pritchard said the committee weighed the pros and the cons of moving Maggie. It was a difficult decision, she said.

"We felt we owed Alaska the right to continue to make Alaska the home for Maggie. She has an adoring crowd," Pritchard said. "The whole community is her herd."

The Alaska Zoo's relationship with elephants precedes its opening in 1968. Annabelle was the reason the zoo was built, Edwards said. He said that a wholesaler won her for selling the most toilet paper. The prize was either $3,000 or a baby elephant.

"The guy said let's take the elephant," Edwards said.

The baby elephant was kept in a heated horse stall until the zoo was ready for her.

Mary Robinson of Talent, Ore., a member of the "Free Maggie" group, wanted Maggie moved to an elephant sanctuary. She said sanctuaries in Tennessee and California had said they would take her.

"I am very angry," Robinson said. "My biggest concern is socialization. Elephants, especially female elephants are social. They have an innate need for other elephant companions."

Smith said zoo officials considered what they knew about Maggie from talking to the experts, and what they didn't know.

"She could have gone to North Carolina and fallen in love with an elephant there and it would have been rainbows every day," he said. "Maybe she wouldn't have fit in."

He described Maggie as an aggressive animal that often did not get along with Annabelle in their years together. But Maggie is a big hit with zoo visitors.

"This is the only elephant in the entire state of Alaska. The people love her. When you hear the people running down the hill yelling 'Maggie the elephant!' your decision would be made," Smith said.

Last year, the zoo received 162,000 visitors.

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