Maggie the elephant, come on down.
Alaska's only elephant has won an all-expenses paid trip to the Bob Barker-endorsed Performing Animal Welfare Society sanctuary in San Andreas, Calif., according to the terms of a deal announced by the Alaska Zoo Board on Thursday.
Accommodations will include a sprawling 75-acre enclosure where she can mingle with four other African elephants. She'll have a posh 20,000-square-foot barn in case the central California climate gets a wee bit chilly. And there is an indoor jacuzzi that she can fully submerge in to rest her feet. Seriously.
The decision to name PAWS as top pick came with unanimous agreement at a board meeting Wednesday night, said board president Dick Thwaites. The details of the move still need to be worked out, he said, but both the zoo and the facility have reached a preliminary agreement.
Those details should be ironed out within two weeks, which should offer enough time to ship her off before winter sets in late next month, said Alaska Zoo director Pat Lampi.
"We wanted to get this done before the snow flies," he said. "We chose PAWS because of their facilities and staffing, and we wanted to make the best choice for Maggie."
The PAWS facility recently made headlines when its officials, accompanied by TV personality Bob Barker, visited Anchorage after proposing to take Maggie and fully pay for her relocation expenses.
During the visit, Barker said he would donate $750,000 to care for her if she were moved to PAWS. The proposal also included an anonymous $100,000 grant for the Alaska Zoo, but that is no longer part of the deal, Thwaites said.
"The deal was, we weren't selling Maggie," he said. "None of the board wanted that to be a condition to the move. We never had the intent to make money on this."
However, as part of the deal, PAWS has offered to cover all of the shipping and veterinary costs associated with the move, which will be between $100,000 to $200,000, Thwaites said.
Zoo officials will be traveling to PAWS in the coming weeks to examine the facility, along with outside experts, so they can be sure Maggie will fit in with the other elephants, Thwaites said. After all, at the tender age of 25, she's going to be the baby among elephants that range in age from 25 to 40.
PAWS is experienced in introducing and integrating new elephants into its facility, Thwaites said. It has four African and five Asian elephants -- though the species are kept segregated -- and has successfully relocated six elephants in the past three years.
Earlier this week, Maggie was examined by an elephant expert from the San Diego Wildlife Park and was found to be in good health and ready to travel, Lampi said. Once at PAWS, she will have access to 24-hour veterinary care, he said.
Officials from both facilities are still working to coordinate the relocation plans, including how to fly her and what staff need to be involved, Thwaites said. Zoo officials will continue crate training her using her treadmill until the crate that will be used for her shipping arrives.
Animal rights groups intensified their calls for Maggie's departure in May when fire crews had to hoist the 8,000-pound elephant to her feet twice within a week.
The problem was likely colic, zoo officials said, but they agreed to move her earlier this summer in the face of increasing public outcry.
Now, the animal rights groups, which have long criticized Maggie's conditions and a perceived lack of action by the zoo, are saying the zoo has made the right decision.
"Having her stay up here another winter would be disastrous," said Catherine Doyle, campaign director for the San Rafael, Calif.-based In Defense of Animals. "I'm so happy. Kudos to the Alaska Zoo for having done the right thing for Maggie."
Lampi said having her gone will offer some relief to the zoo, which has spent about $1.3 million on Maggie during the past few years and still has not fully met her needs. Maggie has consistently been the "sole strong drawer" for the zoo, Thwaites said.
"There's some things we just couldn't provide her, like companionship and a larger exhibit," he said. "Everybody will miss Maggie. We won't forget her."
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