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ANCHORAGE - One day, the "Free Maggie" movement will probably go away. The only question is whether Maggie will too, possibly to a better life.
A plea to find a new home for the 22-year-old African elephant, a star attraction at the Alaska Zoo in South Anchorage for more than two decades, went public recently. Several people debated in letters to the editor whether Maggie is lonely, cold and cramped in her winter compound or actually quite happy.
The controversy has spread beyond Alaska, with animal rights groups as far away as England posting photographs of Maggie on their Web sites and urging her transfer.
Since her stablemate Annabelle died seven years ago, she has lived without the company of another elephant, contrary to national zoo standards.
Alaska Zoo managers have been weighing the pluses of keeping Maggie against the minuses of spending the money required to improve her care and quarters, or even add to her number.
Caught in the middle is Maggie, the 9,100-pound pachyderm with a gift for throwing stones.
"These days, she spends nearly all her time indoors with inadequate stimulation and minimal light," Michael Gollob wrote to the Anchorage Daily News. "It's widely known that female elephants are extremely social and form deep bonds with other elephants. Maggie has no one to communicate with."
Dorothea Lovejoy disagreed. Twenty-one years ago, she helped pay for Maggie's journey from the East Coast to Anchorage so that Annabelle could have some company. And now Lovejoy thinks Maggie is happy where she is, having adopted people for companionship instead of animals.
But a home that's closer in character to Maggie's own grassy savannah birthplace in southern Africa would be preferable, wrote Judy Stohl, who suggested Maggie be placed in one of the new state-of-the-art elephant sanctuaries where Asian and African elephants run free over hundreds of acres.
"What a wonderful community endeavor it would be to support Maggie's relocation to one of these facilities," Stohl said. "We could then enjoy Maggie's new life through the Web sites they each have - a life that will likely last much longer in retired freedom. Please, Alaska Zoo, retire Maggie!"
No, keep her here, countered Marvin Lee, arguing that the whole purpose for having a zoo is to educate people and broaden their experiences. And the only chance some young Alaskans have had to see a real, live elephant has been in Anchorage.
Wrote Lee: "The children of Alaska love Maggie."
They definitely do, zoo director Tex Edwards said.
About a year ago members of the zoo board of directors and staff began meeting with elephant experts and zoo managers across North America. Overall, Edwards said, the experts were less concerned with the fact that a zoo in Alaska had an elephant as they were with Maggie's quality of life while she's here.
The size of her indoor enclosure and outdoor paddock were found to be more than adequate. But the advisers recommended that the zoo replace the concrete surface of Maggie's indoor compound with a softer surface, such as poured rubber.
"One thing we've heard is that a hard, cold concrete floor, over time, will contribute to arthritis and lack of flexibility," Edwards said.
The experts also recommended that Maggie get more exercise. Her handlers generally keep her inside as long as the temperature remains below 40 degrees.
A solution might be to build a new elephant arena - a heated building with a dirt floor about 50 feet wide by 100 feet long - which Edwards said would cost $200,000 to $250,000.
Finally, the experts recommended that Maggie be allowed to socialize more, preferably with other elephants. If the zoo board members decide she needs company, they'll need to either import more elephants or find a good home for Maggie Outside.
Existing zoo accreditation standards set by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association specify that a female elephant needs other female elephants for company. AZA's 2004 guide recommends no less than three.
The Alaska Zoo is not accredited by the AZA, and Maggie is one reason.
"To my knowledge, she's the only solitary female African elephant in a zoo (in the United States) right now," said Mary Robinson, a former Anchorage resident who has been leading an Outside campaign to send Maggie to a sanctuary in the Lower 48.
"I know people up there love her," Robinson said recently from her home in southern Oregon. "I know her keeper sounds like he's very fond of her, and I'm sure that she's fond of her keeper. But people cannot replace the company of another elephant. There is just no comparison."