Wolf Song of Alaska News

Elephant May Remember Alaska's Creature Comforts

Craig Medred / Outdoors / Anchorage Daily News / June 10, 2007

Who knows what goes on in the mind of an elephant?

Apparently a fair number of people think they do, judging from the hoopla surrounding the Alaska Zoo's lone pachyderm these days. There seems a slew of those who believe that moving Maggie south to live among other elephants on the dusty plains of the Midwest -- hey, it's not Africa, but you take what you can get -- is the elephantine version of nirvana.

Has everyone forgotten Keiko?

You remember Keiko, right? That's the killer whale of "Free Willy" movie fame, or the orca of "Free Willy" fame for the politically correct. (We will just overlook that orca is a one-word version of "killer whale" in Latin.)

Anyway, let's recount what happened to Keiko when humans yanked him out of an aquarium and tried to bring him happiness by returning him to those of his kind.

Getting him out of the Mexican swim tank in the first place was a good thing. It was too small. He needed more room. So would Maggie if she were being kept locked up in a Spenard garage, which, fortunately, she's not.

Both Maggie and Keiko are collectively known as "charismatic megafauna." Charismatic, indeed. Saving the Keikos and Maggies of the world is obviously more important than saving the people of some place like Darfur.

Just getting Keiko out of his undersized pool and into a bigger one wasn't enough. People tried to "rehabilitate" him.

Keiko was taken first to the Pacific Northwest and then to an outpost in the North Atlantic. Years were spent trying to retrain him to live in the wild at a cost the Associated Press once reported at more than $20 million. The plan was to release him to be with his fellow orcas to roam the sea in the happy pursuit of live meat.

"Keiko was rehabilitated at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, then airlifted to Iceland," the Associated Press reported. "His handlers there prepared him for the wild, teaching him to catch live fish in an operation that cost about $500,000 a month."

Keiko-rescue efforts started in 1998. He was finally released from Iceland in 2002.

So what happened?

"He swam," the AP reported, "straight for Norway on an 870-mile trek that seemed to be a search for human companionship."

"Seemed to be" is an apt description, for no one really can know for certain why Keiko went to Norway. Maybe he just had a craving for lutefisk.

Whatever the case, that is where he went, and that is where he decided to stay.

"He first turned up near the village of Halsa in late August or early September of 2002," the AP reported. "There, he allowed fans to pet and play with him, even crawl on his back, becoming such an attraction that animal protection authorities imposed a ban on approaching him."

Eventually, he was escorted to a nearby fiord where he stayed until he unexpectedly died from pneumonia in 2003.

"To keep Keiko in shape," it was reported, "his caretakers took him on 'walks,' leading him around the fjords from a small boat at least three times a week."

Obviously, they didn't do a very good job. He caught a simple illness, and it killed him.

But was he happy? That's the big question.

I don't know the answer.

I do, however, know this: Killer whales in the wild are, like elephants, social animals.

These animals live in pods and herds in the way wild canines live in packs.

Pod, herd and pack animals develop bonds with the animals around them. Dogs removed from the pack, p

laced with people and denied contact with other dogs for years seem almost to begin to think of themselves as people.

For a dog that has spent its life solely around humans, being put in with just wild dogs appears to be a pretty traumatic experience.

I doubt things would be much different for an elephant who has, for most of her life, lived with people in Alaska.

For all we know -- given the ability of all animals to adapt to their environments as long as they can get enough food -- Maggie might by now even be conditioned to believe Alaska's climate, and the seasonal shifts in sunlight, are the norm for her species.

Just changing those could be significantly stressful.

There really might be merit to the argument that letting her live out her years here is better than shipping her away.

Personally, I don't like zoos. Never have. Probably never will.

I prefer to see my wildlife in the wild. But I don't think it's a particularly evil thing that there's a place in Anchorage where a poor kid from Mountain View can go to see what an elephant actually looks like.

All too many of those protesting about how Maggie should be moved strike me as the well-off, well-meaning for whom nothing matters but their feeling good about their supposed good intentions.

Not everyone, unfortunately, can go on safari to Africa to see an elephant.

And despite my personal prejudices against zoos, there is the need for intelligent discussion about whether moving Maggie really will be better for Maggie -- not an argument driven by the hysteria of public protest.

She's not a cat. Cats are stupid and anti-social. They're happy to go feral, because they seemingly fail to understand how hard life is in the wild.

Elephants are more like dogs: smarter and social.

These are animals quick to bond with people. They understand how much easier we can make their lives.

These animals come to depend on us.

They are like children, the main difference being that most children eventually grow up and become independent.

Then they can decide to tell you that you're an idiot and leave.

Companion animals -- and that's sort of what Maggie is, one giant companion animal -- don't really have that choice. They can't get free of the effects our decisions have on their lives.

Sending Maggie south might simply be viewed by her as being taken out of the only home she's ever really known to be dispatched to an elephant pound where her only companions will be total strangers, and a bunch of them big, scary, four-legged ones.

Keiko at least, in the end, got to vote with his fins and swam to a place where he could avoid other whales and continue to hang with people.

Once Maggie's shipped south, she won't get that choice. She'll be heading into a re-education camp in the hope she can be taught to live with other elephants.

Maybe that's a good thing. I don't know. I have no idea what goes on in the mind of an elephant.

What amazes me is that there are so many others who seem to think they do.

What exactly is it that gives one special insight in this regard anyway?

Oversize ears? An especially large nose? Rounder feet? A hairy back?

Outdoors editor Craig Medred is an opinion columnist. Reach him at cmedred@adn.com or 257-4588

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