The Alaska Zoo's board of directors, under intense pressure from critics, likely will vote Tuesday to move Maggie the elephant out of Alaska, the board's president predicted.
Dick Thwaites, who has been on the board 20 years and is currently president, said criticism has reached new volumes in recent days and has included personal threats against board members. "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."
The Alaska 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 and an influential board member, though, said Wednesday night that her vote remains the same regardless of the concentrated pressure. "I would never, ever vote to ship Maggie out."
Calls for the zoo to dispatch Maggie, one of the zoo's most popular draws, to a warmer climate or to a location with other elephants have persisted for years. But they climbed dramatically after the 8,000-pound animal twice this month went down on her side and couldn't get up. Anchorage firefighters and a wrecker company had to lift her.
The zoo now believes she first went down because of a stomachache caused by a change in her hay. The second time was probably from the stress on her muscles of the first incident, zoo officials said. For a few days, Maggie was held up by a sling rigged in her enclosure; she still wears a brace that would make it easier to lift her if she goes down again.
Pressure on the zoo has come from local groups and national animal rights organizations, including the well-organized PETA that is offering zoo director Pat Lampi a free trip to an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee to see where Maggie could be placed.
Local groups in favor of moving her, which organized a protest Sunday, plan another on Friday in Anchorage.
EVERYBODY WEIGHING IN
Even the Anchorage Assembly, which has no authority over the issue, unanimously approved a resolution Tuesday night calling for the zoo to consider moving Maggie and said it needs to decide her fate soon.
"Everyone is inundating everyone with information," Thwaites said. He said he knows of state lawmakers who have received pleas to help move Maggie.
The dozen or so volunteer board members are feeling the pressure, 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."
Even as a hardened board member who has been through years of the elephant controversy, Thwaites said he'd be lying if he said the public pressure didn't get to him. "It certainly is affecting my life," he said.
He said that he just wants to do what is best for Maggie. Deciding that, though, is not so easy.
Eileen Floyd, spokeswoman for the zoo, said, "There's just so much highly charged sentiment out there." The pressure, she said, is "distracting from our day-to-day work."
The zoo is, once again, consulting elephant experts in advance of the Tuesday 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."
Most other board members were not reachable Wednesday. Board member Michelle Nelson, though, said she hadn't received any pressure and had not yet made her decision. Her decision will be based, in part, on what she hears on Tuesday from the second round of experts, she said.
Seawell said the pressure lately has been intense. She 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 regrets not accomplishing all that experts recommended to the zoo more than two years ago to improve Maggie's living conditions. The unpredictably high price of steel and other funding issues kept the zoo from accomplishing all its goals, like 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 should decide to move her.
The zoo is interested in hearing from the public and has asked that people drop off comments at a comments box now set up outside the zoo's main entrance between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. or e-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Daily News reporter Megan Holland can be reached at email@example.com.