Alaska Zoo founder torn about elephant's relocation

Posted: Monday, June 04, 2007

ANCHORAGE - The founder of the Alaska Zoo said she's torn over the question facing the zoo's board of directors: should Maggie stay or should she go?

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Sammye Seawell and other board members are scheduled to discuss the matter in a meeting Tuesday night.

"I'm not sure which way is right," Seawell said. "And I don't want to be adamant on either side until I make up my own mind."

Animal welfare groups want Maggie sent to a warmer latitude, preferably an elephant sanctuary in the South, where the ground is soft and there are other elephants.

Renewing calls for her relocation, Maggie lay down on her side in her stall twice last month and couldn't get up on her own. The Anchorage Fire Department was called in both times to get her back up. Vets believe Maggie might have had colic prompted by a change in her hay.

Part of the argument siding with relocation came three years ago in a study commissioned by the zoo. The study found that 10 of 11 elephant experts recommended moving Maggie to a more suitable facility.

In the first half of her life, Maggie had the company of Annabelle, an adult Asian elephant that provided the initial impetus to create the zoo in the first place. Annabelle arrived in 1966 as a yearling and was the grand prize in a toilet tissue-selling promotion.

The desire to get company for Annabelle is what prompted the 1983 acquisition of then 6-month-old Maggie. Ten years ago, Annabelle was euthanized after suffering a severe foot infection that eventually destroyed the bones in her sole. Maggie has lived alone since then.

"I can see that in a place where there are other elephants, maybe she would be happier," Seawell said.

But Seawell said she also worries that Maggie, a temperamental animal, might not conform.

"It could just be terrible someplace she's not happy," she said.

Representatives of zoos and elephant sanctuaries have visited Anchorage to talk to Seawell about what they can offer Maggie. They make a strong case, Seawell said.

The 2004 report also noted the need for a softer surface in Maggie's stable. Plans to install soft flooring this summer are on hold, pending a decision by the zoo's board of directors.

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