Zoo discusses elephant's fate

President predicts board will bow to pressure and move Maggie out of state

Posted: Friday, May 25, 2007

ANCHORAGE - The Alaska Zoo's board of directors met Thursday to decide whether the state's only elephant should be moved south, and the board's president predicted she would be.

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Dick Thwaites, who has been on the board 20 years, said criticism of keeping Maggie the elephant in a cold climate, where she spends months in a concrete enclosure, has been unprecedented. Board members have been personally threatened, he said.

"I'm not sure the board is inclined to keep her," he said. "The board is bowing to the pressure regardless of what the experts say."

Zoo board members have long maintained that they have the backing of elephant experts in their decision to keep Maggie at the zoo.

Sammye Seawell, founder of the zoo, said Wednesday her vote remains the same regardless of the concentrated pressure.

"I would never, ever vote to ship Maggie out," she said.

Calls to send the elephant to a sanctuary in a warmer climate accelerated after the 8,000-pound animal twice last week lay on her side and could not get up. Anchorage firefighters and a wrecker company helped lift her to her feet.

Zoo officials said she probably went down the first time because of a stomach ache caused by a change in her hay. The second time, she probably went down from the stress on her muscles of the first incident, zoo officials said.

For a few days, Maggie was held up by a sling. She continues to wear a harness that would make it easier to lift her if she lies down again.

Local groups and national animal rights organizations have pressured the board to move Maggie. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals offered zoo director Pat Lampi a free trip to an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee to see where Maggie could be placed.

The Anchorage Assembly, which has no authority over the issue, on Tuesday unanimously approved a resolution calling for the zoo to consider moving Maggie soon.

"Everyone is inundating everyone with information," Thwaites said.

The dozen or so volunteer board members are feeling pressured, Thwaites said.

"I'm probably in a situation of losing more board members than one can afford to lose in a small group because they are getting called at home, they are getting e-mails, they are getting all kinds of stuff."

The zoo is again consulting elephant experts in advance of the meeting, Thwaites said.

"I know what they said the first time and my inclination would be to let her stay and work through the whole program they wanted us to go through and see how she comes out," he said. "But that doesn't look like an option right now.

"And, I think for the zoo's safety and health, it probably needs to look at how the public is looking at it. ... Which is a shame."

Board member Michelle Nelson said she had not received any pressure and had not yet made her decision, which will be based in part on what she hears from experts, she said.

Seawell called the resolution by the assembly "way out of line."

"They had no right to do that," she said. The city contributes no money to the zoo and has no authority over its board.

Thwaites said he regrets not accomplishing what elephant experts recommended to the zoo more than two years ago to improve Maggie's living conditions. The high price of steel and other funding issues kept the zoo from accomplishing all its goals, such as putting soft floor cover in the elephant's enclosure. Thwaites said he is worried about the effect on the health of the elephant if the board decides to move her.

The zoo is collecting public comments by e-mail at directorsalaskazoo.org and printed comments in a box outside the zoo's main entrance.

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