Zoo group: Alaska's elephant should be moved

Posted: Thursday, January 27, 2005

ANCHORAGE - Alaska's only elephant should be moved to a zoo with better facilities and programs where she can enjoy the company of other female elephants, the head of a national zoo group said Wednesday.

"In our view, the elephant could thrive better elsewhere," said Sydney J. Butler, executive director of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association in Washington, D.C.

The AZA represents 214 accredited zoos and aquariums in the United States, Canada, Bermuda and Hong Kong. The Alaska Zoo is not among them.

At least two AZA-accredited zoos, including the 550-acre North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, N.C., have said they could provide a new home for Maggie, who arrived at the zoo in 1983 as an infant when her herd in South Africa was culled.

The issue of her welfare is not new. Questions have been raised for years about the wisdom of keeping elephants in Anchorage, where temperatures can dip to 20 below zero in winter.

Nonetheless, the debate intensified after the zoo's other elephant, Annabelle, died of a chronic foot infection in 1997, leaving Maggie to a solitary existence. The AZA recommends that female elephants be kept in groups of three or more.

In a letter this month to Alaska Zoo director Tex Edwards, Butler said the AZA had been keeping track of the debate.

"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," the letter said.

"We believe ... a new location would be in Maggie's best interests, since she could be integrated into a social group and perhaps into the SSP's (Species Survival Plan) breeding program," Butler said.

The AZA would be willing to arrange for Maggie's transfer to another zoo, Butler said.

Edwards was not immediately available for comment Wednesday.

The zoo announced in August that Maggie would be staying in Alaska, but improvements would be made. They included putting a softer material over the concrete flooring in the elephant house, installing a training wall to help with her care, increasing the time elephant handlers spend with her and getting her in shape through the use of the treadmill.

Penelope Wells, chairwoman of Friends of Maggie, a grass-roots group that wants Maggie moved to another zoo, said the changes, if anything, have increased Maggie's stress level.

The worst part is Maggie's boredom and loneliness, Wells said.

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