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Animal rights groups put heat on zoo over elephant
Anchorage Daily News


January 19, 2007

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Maggie gingerly guides a red ball back and forth from one end of her enclosure to the other. She explores the nooks and crannies of the concrete around her, searching and smelling. And sometimes she extends her trunk through the steel bars to a visitor and blows a gush of warm elephant breath on a hand.

She'll play the harmonica if encouraged, her keepers say.




The 7,500-pound African elephant does all of this while she whiles away her hours from mid-October to mid-April in her concrete and steel cage the size of two racquetball courts.

Are Maggie's living conditions unhealthy? Is Maggie unhappy? Another animal rights group is saying yes. Those in charge of her at the Alaska Zoo, though, persist in saying no.

The California-based In Defense of Animals put the Alaska Zoo at the top of its list of the 10 worst U.S. zoos for elephants in 2006, saying Maggie is living alone in a cramped enclosure that is bad for her.

The criticism is not new for the zoo, which has faced local and national flak from animal rights groups and animal-behavior experts for years over the pachyderm.

"While the zoo touts Maggie as a major attraction in the summertime, she is essentially warehoused during the harsh Alaskan winters," according to the report from In Defense of Animals.

The zoo counters that the group has never visited the zoo nor seen Maggie. "So many people have opinions. But do they really know what they are talking about?" said zoo director Pat Lampi.

Criticism against the zoo has increased since the zoo's effort to get Maggie to exercise on a $150,000, first of its kind, elephant treadmill. The treadmill was installed last spring and despite daily coaxing, Maggie still won't exercise on it, although she will walk across it when it is turned off.

"The treadmill is their one last try but they are not achieving quality of life, and it's tragic," said Dr. Elliot Katz, a veterinarian and president of In Defense of Animals.

In the wild, elephants roam up to dozens of miles a day, browsing for food and interacting socially with other elephants in groups of up to 20. At the Alaska Zoo, Maggie is alone in her 1,600-square-foot enclosure.

Living in such confinement, she is prone to arthritis, joint and foot problems, and even premature death, animal rights groups say. They argue she should be moved to an elephant sanctuary in the Lower 48. Local groups, including Friends of Maggie and Free Maggie, have been eyeing a sanctuary in Tennessee, where about two dozen former circus and zoo elephants roam on 2,700 acres.

The Alaska Zoo tied for first place with the Birmingham Zoo in Alabama on the list of the worst zoos for elephants on the In Defense of Animals list. Other zoos named by the animal rights group included the Oregon Zoo, the St. Louis Zoo and the Los Angeles Zoo.

Across the country, zoos have come under fire. In 2006, three zoos, including the Philadelphia Zoo, decided to close their elephant exhibits. Two other zoos, including the Bronx Zoo, decided to phase out theirs. Other zoos, including in San Francisco, Chicago and Detroit, had already done so.

Maggie was a baby elephant when she was plucked from her South African herd after her mother was shot and killed more than 20 years ago. After spending a brief time in New York, she came to the Alaska Zoo where she joined the Asian elephant, Annabelle, who died in 1997.

In August 2004, the Alaska Zoo's board of directors looked at the national trends and considered the objections they were receiving and decided to keep Maggie. But board members said they would reconsider the decision in August. The decision did not come easily. Zoo staff had encouraged the board to move Maggie to the North Carolina Zoological Park.

Lampi, who was the curator of the Alaska Zoo at the time, also voted then to move her to North Carolina, saying, "Maggie's intelligence and North Carolina's experience integrating an aggressive African female indicates that her move to N.C. would be successful," according to a report from the zoo.

Now the zoo's top administrator, Lampi won't publicly say how he feels. "My job, and the people that work here's job, is to take the best possible care of the animals while they are here. ... I keep my personal opinions out of it."

Since the 2004 decision, the zoo has spent more than $1.2 million on upgrades - expanding and ventilating Maggie's cage, creating a larger outdoor pen. She still spends much of her life standing on concrete, though, and that worries veterinarians and her advocates. Annabelle, the zoo's first elephant, died of a foot infection when she was 32 years old, relatively young for an animal that in the wild usually lives to 60.

Alaska Zoo board member Marnie Brennan says it's not fair to quickly judge the zoo. "None of these critics are providing support or donating money for Maggie. No one who says flooring is important is stepping up and offering money for flooring."

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