Alaska's only elephant is now being eyed by officials from a prospective new home, but the same animal rights group that has pushed for Maggie's departure is saying if this facility is the leading option, she should stay here.
"My backyard would be a better place for her than the Alaska Zoo, but that doesn't mean this place is right for her," said Catherine Doyle, campaign director for the San Rafael, Calif.-based In Defense of Animals.
The place in question is the Elephants of Africa Rescue Society, located in Salinas, Calif.
Alaska Zoo director Pat Lampi confirmed EARS is one of the top two locations being considered for Maggie's new home, though he said the zoo board is still withholding the name of the other facilities being considered at their request.
In Defense of Animals called the zoo's consideration of the facility one of the "final betrayals" of Maggie. Problems it lists with EARS include its use of a prod-like tool -- called a "bull hook" or a "guide," depending on which side you ask -- to train its elephants, that it isolates difficult-to-handle elephants and that it exploits its elephants for commercial purposes.
EARS' chief financial officer not only denied the charges but said this is all very premature.
"Our board hasn't decided if we would even be interested in taking Maggie," Heather Greaux said.
Maggie is trained with positive reinforcement, Doyle said, and the free contact method, which uses the prod, would require that Maggie learn how to be handled with it. "She would face pain and punishment if she doesn't comply with the commands."
Greaux said her facility, which houses four African elephants in its five-acre exhibit, does use the prods, though they are only employed similarly to how a leash is on a dog: as a guide. She said the prods are necessary for some elephants but aren't used to the point that they cause physical pain. In other cases, zoo keepers use protective contact -- what Maggie has here -- where the elephant is mostly left alone in its enclosure and no prods are used.
"Protective contact can be misused just as much as a guide can be misused," Greaux said. "A lot of zoos practice that because they don't have the staff or the knowledge."
She also said that the only time when EARS' elephants are isolated is when they are sick, not when they are misbehaving. And all the animals in the facility are retired, Greaux said, so they are not rented out or otherwise commercially exploited. They are simply on display, as they would be at any other zoo.
Lampi said EARS officials told the Alaska Zoo they thought Maggie would do better with protective contact and that they would likely not need to use guides on her. He called the charges made by In Defense of Animals baseless.
"They were wrong about us, and they're probably wrong about them," he said. "It sounds like they take very good care of their animals."
Doyle said Maggie definitely needs to leave Alaska, but EARS is simply not the place for her. She said a facility like the Performing Animal Welfare Society in San Andreas, Calif. would be a better fit for Maggie because it is larger and does not use prods.
Earlier this month, zoo officials said they were considering three backup locations as well, though the well-known Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee is not on the list, according to the zoo board director.
Officials from at least one of the facilities have suggested the elephant stay in Alaska through the winter so she could be properly trained for the move, an idea that animal rights groups blasted, saying she might not survive another winter in her 1,600-square-foot enclosure.
Calls for Maggie's departure intensified in May when fire crews had to hoist the 8,000-pound elephant to her feet twice within a week. Zoo officials suspect Maggie may have been suffering from colic, and the zoo board agreed to move her earlier this summer.
Zoo officials say obstacles to moving Maggie immediately are an estimated $200,000 in costs, crate training her for the move and preparing her for acclimation to the new surroundings.
Maggie left her South African herd as a baby 25 years ago when her mother was killed and arrived in Anchorage in 1983. She has been alone since December 1997 when the zoo's Asian elephant, Annabelle, died at age 33.