Wolf Song of Alaska News

Maggie's Treadmill Isn't Working Out for Her at Alaska Zoo

Alaska Zoo: State's only elephant can't be coaxed to use unusual contraption

Megan Holland / Anchorage Daily News / May 16, 2006

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The Alaska Zoo has been trying to coax its elephant, Maggie, onto the world's first elephant treadmill for two months. But so far, the stubborn and sometimes moody elephant has shown more interest in treats than exercise. She's not about to take up jogging.

The treadmill was custom-made for Maggie amid much fanfare, then delivered to the zoo in September. It is one of the key items in the zoo's plan to improve the controversial living conditions of the pachyderm.

She is the lone elephant in Alaska. Critics argue she should be in a warmer climate where she can walk outdoors year-round and be with other elephants.

But the zoo decided to try this experiment first.

The zoo had said it expected Maggie to be exercising by Thanksgiving.

"Everyone was hoping it would be quick, but we're having the realization that it may take months and months," zoo director Pat Lampi said Monday.

Carrots, apples, birch tree branches and even watermelon haven't been enough to convince Maggie to step all the way onto the 25-foot by 6-foot apparatus that can move up to 8 mph. Built next to the door to her outside pen, it resembles a cattle squeeze more than a gym workout machine.

Three times a day for about 20 minutes, zookeepers try to entice her onto it. Maggie will stretch her massive body over the conveyer belt to reach treats, but she will not trust the bizarre contraption with her full 8,000 pounds. Even when it's not turned on. She'll only put three feet on it.

Alaska Zoo elephant trainer Beth Foglesong said it may take years before Maggie is walking on the treadmill.

"We have to be patient," Foglesong said. "Nobody has ever done this before.

"The instructional video didn't come with it."

Lampi said, "Everybody wishes it would go at a quicker pace. To the outside it may look like nothing is going on, but her keepers are encouraged because she is making baby steps."

Recent elephant research suggests the enormous mammals are very sensitive to ground vibrations, and are very careful where they place their SUV-sized bulk.

"I'm actually sorry to hear it's not working so far for Maggie, but I can't say I'm terribly surprised," said Paul Joslin, a biologist and former head of planning at the Brookfield Zoo near Chicago. He is also a member of Friends of Maggie, a local organization lobbying to move her to be with other elephants in a warmer place. Other zoos and an elephant sanctuary have offered to take her.

Penelope Wells, also of Friends of Maggie, says Maggie, 23 years old, is not like other trainable animals because of her age and her background. Maggie was a wild baby elephant that was plucked from South Africa after her herd was culled.

After years of controversy, in August 2004 the zoo announced it would keep Maggie but improve her living conditions. Zoo officials said they would work on this for three years, then re-evaluate whether Maggie should be moved. A bigger indoor house, larger outdoor area and more exercise were among the recommendations from elephant experts around the country.

The zoo, with the help of private donations and grants, has spent more than $1 million on Maggie's living quarters so far, and that number is expected to increase as the improvements continue, Lampi said.

Treadmills have been used for race horses and camels, among other animals, but this is the first elephant treadmill in the world.

Daily News reporter Megan Holland can be reached at mrholland@adn.com.

Maggie's playlist

Would Maggie exercise on her treadmill if only she had the right music? Here's our playlist for Maggie:

* "Born To Be Wild" by Steppenwolf

* "Wild Thing" by Jimi Hendrix

* "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" by Cyndi Lauper

* "Bootylicious" by Destiny's Child

* "Jungle Love" by Steve Miller Band

* "Welcome to the Jungle" by Guns n' Roses

* "My Humps" by the Black Eyed Peas

* "Baby Got Back" by Sir Mix-a-Lot

* "Don't Cha" by the Pussycat Dolls

* "I Will Survive" by Gloria Gaynor

-- Daily News and Perfect World staff

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