Wolf Song of Alaska News

Zoo Must Face its Elephant in the Room

Comment / Elise Patkotak / Anchorage Daily News / September 12, 2007


The Alaska Zoo is generating enough bad publicity to make me wonder if it has learned nothing from the travails of our political class. As the situation with Maggie drags on, negative news about the zoo continues to pile up. What may ultimately be lost in all this is not Maggie, but the tremendous good the zoo actually does with other animals.

I don't think anyone but the most diehard of diehards is still trying to justify keeping Maggie in Alaska. The majority of people seem to agree on two things. One, we all love Maggie dearly. Two, Alaska is not the best place for her. So why is she still here, generating bad publicity for an organization that should be getting only kudos for the other work it does?

If you want an example of the right and wrong way to handle bad PR, take a look at the difference in the way Lisa Murkowski handled a recent dust-up about some land she bought versus the way Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho is handling his little image problem. In Lisa's case, she acted swiftly and decisively. She quickly realized that no matter how innocent she might have felt her land transaction was, in the public's eye it was dirty. As a U.S. senator she had an obligation to put things right. And she did. She returned the property. What was the result of her swift action? When was the last time you saw this issue in the headlines? She cut off the oxygen fueling the flames of the story.

Now let's look at Sen. Craig. First he pleads guilty to a misdemeanor in an effort to bury the story. When that doesn't work and the media erupt with stories that question everything from his sexuality to his fitness as a public servant, he announces he will resign. He almost immediately changes his mind and announces that maybe he won't resign. And so the flaming headlines continue.

The way to quell bad news is to face it, deal with it and move on. Lisa Murkowski clearly understands this. It seems that neither Sen. Craig nor the Alaska Zoo yet get it.

For as long as Maggie remains in Alaska, she will be the zoo story. She garners more publicity than the baby wildcat that recently took up residence; the baby wildcat that should be the zoo's biggest headliner because this is really what the zoo does and what it does best. It cares for our orphaned wildlife. But that story got a photo and a small paragraph in the paper and was quickly overtaken by more news about Maggie.

So I have to wonder why the zoo board and administration do not get how much damage they continue to inflict on themselves by not moving Maggie as quickly and safely as possible. They say they have to crate-train her. Have they even started? If not, why not? If they know they are going to move her, why do they have to wait to decide on a facility before starting to construct the container and teaching her not to fear it? Is anyone at the zoo thinking about what it will do to their reputation in the hearts and souls of all Alaskans if Maggie dies while waiting for them to get their act together?

It makes me sad to think Maggie may be suffering; sad to think she may have to go through another whole winter staring at her unused travesty of a treadmill; sad to think she could die waiting for a home with warmth and grass and creatures around that look like her. But mostly I'm sad because the Alaska Zoo has been her home for so long and people have honestly loved and tried to care for her, and now she's become a symbol of bad publicity that could harm the zoo's future ability to save abandoned, injured and orphaned wildlife of the north.

I don't think that's an ending Maggie would ever have wanted for her home in Alaska, a home -- let's not forget -- that took her in as an orphan with nowhere else to go. She and the zoo deserve better than all the bad headlines she now generates for it. Move Maggie to her new home and let's get beyond the bad headlines and back to pictures of that little wildcat whose only chance at life right now comes from the dedication of the people at the Alaska Zoo.

Elise Patkotak is a writer who lives in Anchorage. Read her blog at www.elisepatkotak.com.

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