BOISE, Idaho - It's not easy being a pudgy pachyderm.
Everyone - from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to the U.S. Department of Agriculture - seems to weigh in with opinions on trimming Maggie the elephant's waistline or suggestions for putting extra energy in her heavy step.
But soon Maggie may become a bit less massive. Keepers at the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage, where Maggie lives, are preparing to install the world's first elephant exercise treadmill.
"All I know is it seems like a good idea to get a sedentary animal moving," said Sid Cannon, the fit-looking vice president of Boise, Idaho-based Conveyor Engineering, a company that designs the heavy-duty conveyor systems used in mining. "I figured that we put rocks on our conveyors that are as big as an elephant, and a treadmill is basically a conveyor, so building one would be no big deal."
Not so fast.
Cannon first heard about the search for a company to make the elephant treadmill while watching the evening news. He called up John Seawell, who heads up the elephant habitat at the Alaska Zoo and offered the services of Conveyor Engineering - for free.
"I thought it was a neat idea, and wanted to do some good works. We do a little community service, but rarely have the opportunity to help people with our work," he said. "Little did we know that this is a controversial thing."
In the wild, African elephants stay on the move about 16 hours a day foraging for food and water. But Maggie, like all zoo elephants, is confined. The cold Alaska winters keep her indoors part of the year. And though elephants are naturally herd animals, Maggie has been alone since 1997 when the zoo's other elephant, Annabelle, died of a chronic foot infection.
That's got some animal advocates pushing to have Maggie retired to a sanctuary or moved to a zoo in a warmer climate.
"There's no comparison to a treadmill versus life in the wild or in a sanctuary," said Nicole Meyer, an elephant specialist with PETA. "Female elephants are highly social and to keep them in solitary confinement is completely cruel."
Seawell hopes the treadmill will stem some criticism.
"It's kind of hard to get that kind of movement in captivity. So a common problem as they get older is they get joint problems. We hope (the treadmill) is exercise she'll enjoy taking," Seawell said. "She could stand to lose a couple of hundred pounds, but out of a weight of 9,200 pounds it's somewhat insignificant."
Animal treadmills are nothing new - the exercise wheel is standard equipment for pet mice. Some veterinarians use partially submerged, aquatic therapy treadmills to help to help injured dogs regain mobility. EquiGym, a Lexington, Ky.-based company, designs and sells high-speed treadmills for race horses. There's even a company producing treadmills for race camels.
But until recently, an elephant treadmill was unheard of. Seawell and Cannon turned to EquiGym owner Leonie Seesing Ommundson for guidance. "We're dealing with an elephant," Seesing said, "which has tremendous brain capacity."
Expected to be installed sometime this summer, the treadmill will be just over 20 feet long and five feet wide. Elephants walk by simultaneously moving two legs at a time along a path only about 18 inches wide, so the machine has to be able to withstand concentrated weight. It will be buried in a pit so that the surface is roughly level with the ground, with safety rails on either side of the treadmill's belt.
"Our biggest concern is that we break the elephant," Cannon said.
For extra safety, Cannon decided to use a computerized drive that can sense the amount of torque on the treadmill pad and adjust accordingly. That way, the motor will automatically stop if the elephant suddenly stops. The treadmill will also include eight speed levels and an incline option.
And because Cannon feared the traditional stitching line that binds the treadmill belt together would look like a ditch or barrier to sensitive animal eyes, the belt will be bound with an invisible, angled splice.
"We hope that within a half a years' time, Maggie will be up to where she's spending between two and three hours a day on the machine with a maximum one hour at a time," Seawell said.
Diet isn't an issue. Maggie already gets lots of fiber, eating about 10 pounds of horse feed in the morning, fortified with a vitamin and mineral supplement. She gets a side dish of a pound or two of fruit and hay throughout the day, along with her favorite snacks: fresh birch trees and dandelions.
Of course, training an elephant to walk on a treadmill is another matter. Seawell plans to install the machine in the pathway between Maggie's indoor barn and the rest of her outdoor habitat area. They will give her some time to get used to the presence of the machine before turning it on.
Cannon, meanwhile, said he's enjoyed working on the treadmill but doesn't plan to make any more.
"We just thought this would be a nice thing to do, and then started looking on the Internet and saw the negative side. They have their point of view, and that's fine," Cannon said. "I know from talking to the people at the zoo that they love their elephant. But when we're done with this one, we're going to turn the plans over to EquiGym. Mining is controversial enough."