Zoo holds going-away party for Maggie

State's only elephant prepares to leave for California this week

Posted: Monday, October 29, 2007

ANCHORAGE - Alaska's only elephant is getting a one-way ticket out of town.

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After months of a tug-of-war between those wanting Maggie to stay and those advocating for a warmer climate where she could be in the company of other female elephants, the 25-year-old African elephant at The Alaska Zoo is heading to sunny California on Thursday.

Her new home will be at the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) in San Andreas.

There, Maggie - who now lives in an elephant house with concrete floors and has access to a small outside enclosure - will have 30 acres where she will live with nine other elephants.

The move became reality after retired game show host Bob Barker promised to donate $750,000 for her care there.

Maggie arrived at the zoo as a baby in 1983 after her herd was culled in South Africa. She has been alone ever since the zoo's only other elephant, Annabelle - won by a wholesaler in a toilet paper selling contest - died in 1997 at age 33 of a chronic foot infection.

Web links:

• The Alaska Zoo: www.alaskazoo.org

• Permorming Animal Welfare Society: www.pawsweb.org

The Air Force has agreed to fly Maggie to her new home. The elephant will be loaded onto a C-17 cargo plane at Elmendorf Air Force Base and brought to Travis Air Force Base, where she will be trucked 85 miles to her new home, where it was a balmy 75 degrees on Sunday.

She will be accompanied by two veterinarians, two transport specialists, an animal behavior specialist and several zoo staff, as well as Ed Stewart, the co-founder of PAWS. The entire trip is expected to take 12 hours.

The Air Force agreed to transport Maggie as part of a training mission after officials with PAWS and the zoo contacted them after finding out the elephant was too big for a commercial airline.

Over the weekend, hundreds of people attended a two-day going-away party for Maggie at the zoo complete with a slide show, cotton candy, a cake and crayon coloring for the kids.

Many wrote carefully-crafted goodbye wishes on long sheets of white paper hung up at the elephant house.

With temperatures hovering just above freezing, 5-year-old Garrett Carpenter waited outside for Maggie to appear.

"I will miss her," the boy said. "Because I love her and I love her very much."

Garrett's father, Greg Carpenter, 43, said he used to come to the zoo as a kid to see Annabelle, who delighted zoo visitors with her painting abilities. When Annabelle first arrived in Alaska, there was no zoo so she was housed in a horse stall. The Alaska Zoo was built to accommodate Annabelle.

While it's hard to see Maggie go, Carpenter thinks it is right. He tells his boy Maggie deserves to be warm and have friends.

"I think it is probably a good thing," Carpenter said. "She's probably a lonely animal."

The Zoo board initially balked at sending Maggie to another facility. With pressure mounting to do better by the elephant, the zoo embarked on an expensive campaign to improve her quality of life, including building a $100,000 treadmill Maggie couldn't be coaxed into using.

Pleas to have her moved grew louder this year when Maggie twice couldn't get back on her feet. Firefighters were called to hoist the 8,000-pound animal into a standing position.

Jenine Kline brought five children between the ages of 2 and 11 to say goodbye to Maggie. Kline, 32, remembers seeing Maggie when she was a girl.

"It is sad to see her go but happy to see her warm," said Kline, who said her family also is looking to leave Alaska for a warmer climate.

Her 4-year-old daughter, Keliah, was crying last night about Maggie leaving, Kline said.

"I tell her she's going to be warm and she says, 'Oh, yes,"' Kline said.

Jana Lage, 40, paused briefly on the path to the elephant house.

"Animals sometimes need to go places that are right for them," she said.

She expects her son will probably ask for Maggie when they visit the zoo, she said, looking at 2½ year-old Marcos, busy stuffing popcorn in his mouth.

"Bye-bye Maggie," the boy said before running off down the path to see the elephant for the last time.

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