by Sheila Toomey
Anchorage Daily News
February 15, 2005
Google the words "maggie elephant alaska," and you get 9,180 hits. The New York Times wrote about her last month, and both Jay Leno and David Letterman told the same Maggie joke in their monologues.
It went something like this: Officials at a zoo in Anchorage, Alaska, are trying to figure out why their African elephant is depressed. Well, duh. You think it has anything to do with being an elephant in a zoo in Anchorage, Alaska?
The issue is whether the Alaska Zoo can provide a decent life for Maggie, a 22-year-old native of Zimbabwe, and no one involved thinks the question is funny.
Should Maggie stay in Alaska or be sent to a zoo in a warmer climate, one that has other elephants? How close to natural habitat must a zoo get to be considered a fit home for an elephant, especially a female African? What's more important for Maggie, to remain in the life she knows or to be moved to a life experts believe she wants?
After a year of agonizing over whether to keep Maggie or send her somewhere else, after listening to experts on both sides, the Alaska Zoo board decided last summer that Maggie would not like to be shipped to a strange place full of strange elephants.
Maggie has never known any other life and is happy where she is, the board concluded. So they are keeping her here for at least three years while efforts are made to upgrade her environment, including building the first elephant treadmill so she can exercise during the winter, said zoo director Tex Edwards. In three years, the board will re-evaluate the situation.
"We are comfortable with the decision we made," said current board president Vince Curry. "I understand that some people don't agree with the conclusion."
One of those people is Penelope Wells, a local artist, wife of a retired orthodontist, and a reluctant activist.
Wells says the zoo made the wrong decision and it's dangerous to wait to find another home for Maggie. She's relatively healthy now and at least two good warm-weather zoos with elephants want her. If she gets sick, those opportunities will disappear, Wells said.
"This is Maggie's chance. It's her window to get back to being an elephant, to live a more natural life."
Wells is one of the founders of Friends of Maggie, a local group with a dozen or so active members who believe Maggie must be relocated to a place where she can live a life more like the one experts say elephants require in order to thrive. This means being with others of her kind in a climate where she can walk around outside all year.
It's an ethical matter, says Wells. Friends of Maggie can't just abandon Maggie. The group has to do something. So it has decided to take the issue to the public.
"Scientists have learned so much about elephants," Wells said during a recent visit to Maggie, who lives in a building that is larger than national standards but is still a chilly concrete cage with bars where she bumps into things and often has to back up like a big truck to turn around.
Maggie's longtime keeper, a man everyone agrees she is very fond of, has taken a job with the Department of Corrections, but he still works with her about 20 hours a week, Edwards said. During Wells' visit, two other keepers were with her, one cleaning the barn and the other engaging Maggie in games meant to exercise her trunk and her mind. As quickly as a keeper put forkfuls of hay in tires hanging from the ceiling, Maggie snatched bundles out with her trunk, eating some and flinging some around. She was lively, snuffled a lot and seemed to be having a good time until the keepers left for other duties.
The battle over Maggie's future heated up in January when the American Zoo and Aquarium Association took sides. In a letter to the Alaska Zoo, the association said Maggie should be moved.
The Jan. 13 letter is very diplomatic, deliberately so, according to Sydney Butler, American Zoo and Aquarium Association executive director. It does not say anything bad about the zoo, but the message is unequivocal.
"We do not doubt your commitment, but we must express concern that, despite your current efforts, Maggie will continue to live a solitary life in extremely challenging conditions."
Two American Zoo and Aquarium Association zoos that specialize in elephant care are willing to take Maggie, the letter says. "We believe that such a new location would be in Maggie's best interest."
The letter matters, because the association is not a radical animal rights organization or a group of romantic do-gooders who want to send all elephants back to Africa. Its members are professionals who run 78 zoos and more than a hundred aquariums across North America, including leading zoos like San Diego, Busch Gardens, the Bronx Zoo, Disney Animal Kingdom, Denver and Oakland.
There are no solitary female African elephants in any American Zoo and Aquarium Association zoos, said Alison Stevenson, a spokeswoman for the organization.
Edwards and Curry felt broadsided by the association letter and its publication by Friends of Maggie. They saw it as an attack on the whole zoo.
Edwards agrees that female African elephants in the wild are very social animals and don't live alone. But people just assume this "principle applies to every individual animal in every situation on the globe," he said.
Maggie hasn't lived that life. She has been shaped by the life she lives here and is used to it, he said.
"I don't intend to give any kind of credence to a group of people who like to raise a bunch of fuss," Edwards said.
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