After she lay down and refused to get up twice earlier in May, the situation of Maggie, the African Elephant at the Alaska Zoo, is getting more media attention. Both times, firefighters were called in to help her up. Now the zoo is left facing the decision of whether to move Maggie to a sanctuary or another zoo in the Lower 48 or keep her at the world's northernmost zoo.
The Alaska Zoo's board of directors made no decision about Maggie's future at a May 29 meeting.
"She absolutely should not spend another winter here," said Paul Joslin, vice president of Friends of Maggie, a group that wants to see Maggie moved south.
What happens next is unclear. But the board's chairman, Dick Thwaites, bristles at the notion that the board "postponed" any decision.
Thwaites was criticizing a headline - "Zoo board postpones decision on Maggie" - that ran on the front page of the Anchorage Daily News May 30 with a story by reporter Megan Holland.
"No one used the word postpone," Thwaites said. "I think Megan Holland has her own idea of things and she put that into her own words. It's got to make headlines or it doesn't work."
Thwaites did not elaborate on why he thought "postpone" was inaccurate or what Holland and other reporters had gotten wrong. Calls to Holland weren't returned at press time.
"I would say it's been hyped up beyond all imagination," said Thwaites. "It doesn't matter what we say or what we do, but the media picks up on this 'Free Willy,' 'Free Maggie' - free whatever Š It seems like the media has decided what's going to happen to Maggie."
The board is going over all possible options, Thwaites said. Some new members are getting up to speed on old documents, he said. One document related to Maggie is a recently leaked report from 2004 in which 10 of 11 elephant experts recommended moving Maggie.
Nine of the experts were people who don't live in Alaska, Thwaites said. "The board put more weight to the ones who knew Maggie and knew her situation."
Maggie came to Alaska in 1983 from Zimbabwe to provide company for the zoo's other female elephant, Annabelle, and to escape being culled. Annabelle, who was won in a contest by a local toilet paper salesman, was the zoo's cornerstone, Thwaites said. Annabelle died in 1997 from a genetic foot infection, but Maggie maintained the elephant enclosure as the zoo's most-visited exhibit, Thwaites said.
Currently, zoo records are open to the public, for the most part, Thwaites said. But the board meetings are not. They're also not open to the media.
"It's more like we're in an executive session," Thwaites said. That's because the board cannot accommodate everyone who wants to attend, he said. Plus, Thwaites added, "Why would you want news media there who've misquoted and used their own words?" Again, Thwaites failed to identify specific instances where he or other board members were misquoted.
The zoo is currently awaiting Governor Sarah Palin's signature on a state budget that would provide the zoo with about $1,700,000 in funding. It would be the first time the state budget contained money appropriated directly for the zoo.
Meanwhile, Maggie has been getting play elsewhere. A song on a recent Fairbanks compilation, Stranger Than the City, advocates for Maggie's release. "An elephant needs a treadmill like a fish needs a bicycle," goes the song "Annabelle," by Isaac and the Awkward Situations.
And, among other national media outlets, Saturday Night Live's May 19 Weekend Update included a reference to Maggie and the firefighters who helped her back to her feet: "Because if there's one thing firefighters in Alaska know how to deal with," said comedian Seth Meyers, "it's elephants."
- Casey Grove