After four decades of elephant-keeping, the Alaska Zoo hands over its beloved pachyderm Maggie to a sanctuary in California today.
Wednesday afternoon, Maggie had her last preparation exercise. Later, zoo officials, handlers, sanctuary representatives, and the U.S. Air Force, which has agreed to fly her in a C-17 air cargo plane, met to discuss the last necessary details.
It has been 25 years since Maggie was last moved, as a baby, and while nobody knows what exactly will happen, her handlers told the Air Force to expect trumpeting sounds or maybe her banging her head against the crate, said Capt. Kelley Jeter. Handlers also told the Air Force that the plane should be kept at 65 to 70 degrees to keep the animal comfortable. And loud, obscure noises, normally part of any cargo plane loading process, should be kept to a minimum.
The carefully orchestrated trip, dubbed Operation Maggie Migration, is expected to take 16 hours.
"We're all on schedule," said zoo director Pat Lampi. "We are totally prepared."
First, beginning this afternoon, the 8,000-pound African elephant will be boxed in a heated metal crate, then lifted by a crane onto a flatbed truck, which will drive to Elmendorf Air Force Base. Maggie will be loaded onto the C-17, along with an entourage of two dozen people, including zoo and sanctuary officials, handlers and veterinarians, and a camera crew from the Discovery Channel. The plane is scheduled to take off about 6 p.m.
After a five-hour flight, the plane should arrive at Travis Air Force Base in Northern California at about midnight Pacific time. Maggie will rest there for a few hours, then be driven on another flatbed truck 85 miles to her new home. Trip organizers are trying to beat the California rush hour traffic Friday morning, Jeter said.
"She's definitely going first class," said Alaska Zoo spokeswoman Eileen Floyd, who watched Maggie's last crate training exercise Wednesday afternoon with local reporters.
At one point, Maggie saw Floyd, raised her trunk and began walking towards the bars that separated them.
"Hey, sweetpea," Floyd said.
Maggie trumpeted and demanded treats -- bananas, melons and candy -- as her handlers fastened loose chains around her legs. The animal has been practicing this routine for two weeks.
"Good girl. Steady," her handler repeated.
Minutes later, the elephant ambled outside, chains clanking along behind her, and went straight into her metal crate, which looks like a shipping container. She stayed for about 20 minutes before walking out.
Today, she will be entirely enclosed in the crate -- something she has not yet experienced. Then she will be lifted into the air to be put on the truck, also something she has not practiced.
Her favorite toys, including her hay basket and feeder balls, will be traveling with her, Lampi said.
Once at the Performing Animal Welfare Society sanctuary in Northern California, Maggie will be slowly introduced to the other dozen elephants there. One of them, named 71, was taken from the same area in Africa as Maggie about 25 years ago.
"I'd be curious to see if they recognize each other," Lampi said.
Lampi said the zoo hasn't decided what to do with Maggie's barn and yard, or the rarely used treadmill crafted specially for her. He liked the idea of turning the area into a playhouse for children, where kids could learn about elephants, see pictures of Maggie's life in Alaska and her move, and maybe even view a webcam showing her new life in California.
With the departure of the controversial elephant, the zoo now will house only northern animals, with the exception of a few snakes or other indoor species, Lampi said. The zoo started in 1966 after its founder, Sammye Seawell, acquired the Asian elephant Annabelle. Annabelle died in 1997.
Penelope Wells was instrumental in spearheading the effort to move Maggie to a warmer climate to be with other elephants.
"We are all absolutely thrilled this day is finally here," she said.
"In a way, it's still sinking in that she's going."