Wolf Song of Alaska News

Pachyderm Won't Pace to Keep Off Pounds

CNN / Associated Press / May 17, 2006

Anchorage, Alaska (AP) -- So far, it's only the trainers at the Alaska Zoo who seem to be breaking into a sweat.

They've so far made little progress trying to coax Maggie, a somewhat cantankerous African elephant, onto the world's first treadmill for a pachyderm.

For two months, Maggie's trainers have used her favorite treats -- watermelon, apples, carrots, peanuts in the shell, banana slices and sweet potatoes -- to entice the 8,000-pound elephant into exercising on the $100,000 piece of equipment.

"She has two feet on the treadmill and has touched a third one on it," zoo director Pat Lampi said Tuesday. "Every six inches forward is a new goal. There are a lot of steps to go."

Maggie's trainers and zoo staff aren't discouraged.

"It is just a matter of getting that fourth foot up off the concrete floor," elephant trainer Rob Smith said.

Maggie arrived at the zoo in 1983 as a calf when her herd in Kruger National Park in South Africa was culled. She has been alone since December 14, 1997, when the zoo's other elephant died at age 33 of a foot infection.

The treadmill is part of a $1 million program the zoo launched two years ago to improve Maggie's life after deciding to keep Alaska's only elephant instead of placing her at another facility, perhaps in a warmer climate, with more elephants.

The zoo's program for Maggie included doubling the size of the elephant house and installing new heating, light and ventilation systems, including upgraded radiant heat in the concrete floor. Her outdoor paddock was doubled in size.

Feeding stations were placed high so that she now stretches for her food. Treats are hidden around her enclosure to help keep her busy. She's provided birch logs to strip the bark off.

The extra activity and a diet have helped Maggie shed about 1,000 pounds. "We think she's at a good weight now. It is just a matter of maintaining that," Lampi said.

The Alaska Zoo is letting Maggie call the shots. Trainers can tell just by looking at her that some days she wants to train. Other days not.

"They learn every day of their lives. They're like people," Smith said. "Just like in school, there were days you didn't want to be in the lecture hall."

The treadmill, made with the help of a company that designs heavy-duty conveyor systems used in mining, was delivered to the zoo in September. Lampi said they originally hoped to have Maggie taking walks on it by the end of November.

But Maggie, it turned out, has needed a little more time.

"I think probably there is a lot going on in Maggie's mind right now," said Mike Keele, deputy director of the Oregon Zoo in Portland, Oregon, and chairman of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums' species survival program for elephants. "I think she is probably trying to build a level of confidence. I think in time she will use it."

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