Wolf Song of Alaska News

One-Way Ticket South for Maggie

Alaska's only elephant is scheduled to fly out Thursday

Kyle Hopkins / Anchorage Daily News / October 28, 2007

If any of the roughly 280,000 people in Anchorage decided to pack up and move this week, not one of us would draw the kind of passionate tributes and heartsick farewells showered on Maggie the elephant Saturday.

The Alaska Zoo plans to send Maggie, Alaska's only elephant, to California on Thursday after a painful debate over where she belongs. Some Maggie lovers thought she would be better off in a warmer state around other elephants. Others believed she's just fine in Anchorage.

Now that a decision's been made, both camps are saying their goodbyes. On Saturday, the zoo started a two-day farewell that crammed the parking lot and is expected to draw more well-wishers today.

In the warm zoo greenhouse Saturday, a slide show of Maggie photos played on a projector and kids wearing elephant masks with paintbrush trunks painted pictures.

Aleksei Burton, who is 3-and-a-half, pressed his mask to his face while his father, Gordon, snapped pictures. A piece of goodbye cake sat on a nearby workbench.

Aleksei has been coming to the zoo since he was in a stroller. One of his first words was "Maggie," his father said.

Like many visitors, Gordon Burton had mixed feelings about the elephant leaving for the Performing Animal Welfare Society sanctuary in Northern California.

"We like coming to see her, but we understand they're trying to do what's best for her," he said.

After painting, the family left to see the elephant.

Maggie split her time between her snowy pen and her concrete elephant house -- home to a much-discussed, little-used treadmill that was supposed to help her get some exercise.

"See Maggie? See Maggie?" Candace Rhodenizer asked her 7-month-old daughter, Sydney. Another daughter, 3-year-old Olivia, stood nearby. She wore an orange Halloween ribbon in her hair.

Olivia always wants to come see Maggie but is OK with the elephant leaving, her mother said. The family has talked about this at length.

"Where's she going" Candace asked.

"California."

"She doesn't like the cold, like Mom, right?"

The Rhodenizer family knows more about Maggie's trip than most. Candace's husband, Gene, works at Elmendorf Air Force Base and has been helping prepare for Maggie's flight.

The Air Force will take Maggie in a C-17 cargo plane to another base in California. Gene said he recorded the sound of the hydraulic loader that will be used to get Maggie into the aircraft so zoo officials could play it for her and get her used to the noise.

Maggie soon walked out to her pen. The crowd followed.

She briefly stood inside the tan metal crate that she'll travel in -- Rhodenizer said there are straps built into the crate that can be used to hoist her up if she falls down -- then began to walk along the fence.

In the cold air, steam rose from her wrinkled skin. Spectators commented on the sores on her face and leg, left over from spells in May when Maggie couldn't stand up on her own and had to be lifted to her feet.

Dorothy Arnold pulled a film camera from a faded leather case and began taking pictures. She said she's lived in Alaska since 1953 and watched Maggie, now 25, grow up.

Arnold said not all elephants need a herd and Maggie is the only chance some Alaska kids get to see a real elephant.

"That's the only reason I came to the zoo today, so I could see Maggie for the last time," she said.

Late in the afternoon, after most of the spectators left, a zoo employee held up a canvas for Maggie to paint. Every few successful brush strokes, she earned a giant snack.

The last few visitors put their fingers through the black wire mesh that separates them from the elephant, watching and calling to Maggie. A girl was delighted when the elephant twisted her trunk in the air -- a gesture the girl decided was a wave.

On the wall was a series of banners that well-wishers wrote messages on throughout the day. These are Maggie's goodbye cards:

"Enjoy the sunshine" and "Safe travels to your new home!"

"I will always remember my time with you. You are a very special elephant."

And: "Maggie, thanks for being 'our' elephant. We'll miss you.' "

Only Maggie knows if she'll miss us too.

Find Kyle Hopkins' political blog online at adn.com/alaskapolitics or call him at 257-4334.

 

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