After years of controversy and mounting pressure, the Alaska Zoo has decided to transfer its lone African elephant, Maggie, to a facility in the Lower 48 where she can be with other elephants.
Zoo officials announced the plan Wednesday, saying the move is contingent upon certain criteria, including the pachyderm's health, a means to transfer her safely, and finding a suitable place for her to live.
The zoo board's unanimous decision ends intense speculation and debate in recent weeks over whether the animal should stay or go. The plan immediately drew praise from animal rights activists who had lobbied for several years to get her out of Alaska.
Board president Dick Thwaites said the board believes the tide of public opinion has changed in the three years since the last time the question of moving Maggie was raised and the board now has more confidence in the safety of transporting an elephant after recent transfers by other zoos.
Paul Joslin, wildlife biologist and vice president of the group Friends of Maggie, said, "This is really a long time coming and, boy, am I glad to see it come."
The zoo board in announcing the decision said it did not know when the move would occur or what zoo or sanctuary Maggie would be transferred to. Zoo director Pat Lampi said a lot of work now needs to be done to work out the details.
"If everything falls into line, I think this is a good decision," he said.
Elephant veterinarians need to be brought up to Anchorage to examine the animal to determine her health and see if she is well enough for a move, he said.
Pressure mounted over the last month to move Maggie after she twice went down on her side and could not lift herself off the concrete floor of her 1,600-square-foot enclosure. Zoo officials believe Maggie suffered a bout of colic from a switch in her hay. The second incident may have been because of her weakened muscles from the first, they said.
After the incidents, local groups staged protests in the streets of Anchorage. The Anchorage Assembly expressed concern and urged a decision. Thousands of people sent e-mails and letters after the zoo asked for the public's opinion. Even the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which accredits zoos, urged the zoo to move the animal.
Activists have long argued the giant land animals are highly sociable and form social bonds and need to be in warmer environments where they can exercise on soft terrain. They say the Alaska Zoo, without other elephants, is a lonely place for Maggie where she simply did not have enough space, and spent too many months in the cold winters locked in her enclosure.
All along, zoo officials insisted they were only thinking of Maggie and what was best for her. They questioned her ability to handle a long transport away from Alaska and her ability to adapt to other elephants.
Three years ago, the zoo board voted to keep Maggie at the zoo but under certain conditions meant to provide a better life, including installing a first of its kind elephant treadmill to give her exercise. The treadmill has, for the most part, gone unused.
The zoo joins a list of institutions that have recently decided to move their elephants to better conditions. The Detroit Zoo, the Philadelphia Zoo and the San Francisco Zoo all retired their elephants from zoo life and shipped them to sanctuaries.
In Defense of Animals, a California-based animals rights group that has been lobbying to move Maggie, applauded the decision Wednesday but continued to criticize the zoo, saying it was long overdue.
"My hope is that it's not too late and that there can still be a successful transfer," said Dr. Elliot Katz, the group's president.
Katz said he would like to see the animal go to the Performing Animal Welfare Society's elephant sanctuary in San Andreas, southeast of Sacramento, Calif., which would be one of the shorter move options for her. The facility offers some 100 acres.
The 25-year-old elephant is in the prime of her breeding years. She has been at the Alaska Zoo since her herd in Africa was culled and she was captured as a baby. She has been alone since 1997, when her companion at the zoo, the Asian elephant Annabelle, died.
Daily News reporter Megan Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.