Wolf Song of Alaska News


Alaska Zoo Founder Torn as She Considers Maggie's Exit

One-Way Elephant: Seawell says air travel would be safest, but fare's $114,000

George Bryson / Anchorage daily News / June 3, 2007

If there was a meter at the Alaska Zoo that gauged how strongly people feel about the fate of Maggie the elephant --"Should she stay?" or "Should she go? -- you might think it would look like this:

At one end of the scale would be any card-carrying PETA member (or other animal rights activist) who passionately wants to send Maggie to a warmer latitude Outside, preferably an elephant sanctuary in the South -- where the ground is soft and there's room to roam with other elephants.

And at the other end would be 88-year-old zoo founder Sammye Seawell -- who brought Maggie here as an orphaned African elephant 24 years ago this summer -- and passionately wants her to stay.

Reinforcing that perception recently, Seawell -- who still serves on the zoo's 14-member board of directors -- told a reporter: "I would never, ever vote to ship Maggie out."

But that's not how she feels today, Seawell said Saturday, when asked about the quote.

"Yeah, well, I shouldn't have said that," she said.

Then how does she feel?

"Right now I feel very torn," said Seawell, speaking by telephone from her home in Anchorage. "I'm not sure which way is right. And I don't want to be adamant on either side until I make up my own mind."

Part of the argument in favor of relocating Maggie came three years ago in a study commissioned by the zoo, which found that 10 of 11 elephant experts recommended that she be moved to a more suitable facility south of Alaska. The report cited the importance of elephants enjoying the company of other elephants.

Throughout the first half of her life, that wasn't an issue for Maggie. She had Annabelle, the popular adult Asian elephant that provided the initial impetus to create the zoo in the first place (when in 1966, as a yearling, Annabelle arrived in Anchorage as the grand prize in a toilet tissue-selling promotion).

In fact the desire to provide company for Annabelle is what prompted the acquisition of then 6-month-old Maggie in 1983. Ten years ago, however, Annabelle suffered a severe foot infection that eventually destroyed the bones in her sole. She had to be euthanized. Since then, Maggie has lived alone.

MAGGIE THE MOODY

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

But there is no way to know that for sure until Maggie is actually moved there, Seawell said. And she worries that Maggie might not conform.

"She's a pretty temperamental elephant, and she's not easy to get along with," Seawell said. "It could just be terrible someplace she's not happy."

At the same time, representatives of zoos and elephant sanctuaries have visited Anchorage to talk to her about what they can offer Maggie, and they make a strong case, Seawell said.

"They're very convincing," she said. "I might be wrong about keeping her."

But when she contemplates the danger of trying to truck an adult elephant such a long distance, she tends to change her mind. She knows of three instances in which elephants have died -- from panic and injury -- in the process of being transported far shorter distances.

"It's just cruelty beyond words," she said.

The 2004 report also noted the need for Maggie to be provided a softer surface in her stable, as well as larger quarters and more exercise. Since then, the zoo has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to meet those needs. Among other things, it purchased a $150,000 treadmill capable of withstanding the footfalls of an 8,000-pound elephant.

So far Maggie hasn't been willing to use the treadmill much, Seawell said, but they were told all along that it would take a couple of years for her to adjust to it.

The zoo has yet to install about $100,000 worth of soft flooring in her stall. Plans to do so this summer are currently on hold, pending a decision by the zoo's board of directors on Maggie's future.

BOARD IS STILL SPLIT

The board is scheduled to resume its Maggie deliberations in a meeting Tuesday night.

Seawell thinks the board is still split on the issue, even though public pressure to move Maggie -- especially from animal rights groups -- increased recently after news spread that she lay down on her side in her stall and required the help of the Fire Department to get back up.

Vets who later examined Maggie believe the episode was prompted by a change in her hay the day before, which prompted a bout of colic.

"But if you ever want to get the public's attention, call the Fire Department to help you lift an elephant," Seawell said, laughing. "There were nine fire trucks here."

Subsequent pressure from groups like PETA makes her want to resist giving in to the Move-Maggie forces, Seawell says.

She's also heard from a lot of people in town and at the zoo who are urging her to stand firm.

"But on the other hand, I want to do what's best for Maggie," she said.

If the board does decide to relocate its elephant, the only humane way to do so would be to ship her out by air, Seawell said. But that would be costly.

Her husband, John Seawell, recently checked on the price for an elephant's fare to California and was told it's running about $114,000 one-way.

But that's where she'll draw the line, Seawell said.

"Unless they agree to ship her by air, it will be over my dead body," she said. "And you can put that in the paper."

Daily News reporter George Bryson can be reached at gbryson@adn.com.
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