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December 26, 2011

Elephant Leaves Alaska for Warmer Home

by Ted Landphair

African elephant spent 24 years at Anchorage zoo

As we write this story, the temperature in Anchorage, Alaska, is minus-8 degrees Celsius. Bitter cold, in other words, as you might expect on an early-winter day in a state that’s sometimes called “America’s Ice Box.”

Meanwhile, Maggie the Elephant is strolling about the 12-hectare grounds she shares with nine other pachyderms at an animal-rescue society’s compound in California’s Sierra Mountains, where it’s also chilly at the moment, but a degree or two above freezing at least.

This is all relevant because the African elephant spent 24 of her first 25 years at the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage, where she was the only elephant and lived in a cage that had only a small outdoor enclosure.  

Highly social elephants need a lot of room, for obvious reasons. And the death of Peaches, a 55-year-old elephant at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo in 2005 - just three months after another elephant died there - ignited a debate about whether these furless beasts can tolerate cold climates.

The Alaska Zoo was pressured to send Maggie to a facility in warmer climes. But it resisted - even building the world’s only elephant treadmill, at a cost of $100,000 - to give Maggie, who was a good 2,000 kilos overweight, something to keep her occupied.

But Maggie would go nowhere near the contraption.

Finally in 2007, after TV game-show host Bob Barker donated $750,000 to help pay for her transfer and future care, the Alaska Zoo Board relented, and Maggie took a flight on a cargo plane to her new home in California.

Other northern zoos have also given up their elephants. In 2005, for instance, the zoo in nippy Detroit, Michigan, closed its elephant exhibit and sent its two specimens - Winky and Wanda - to a sanctuary in toastier Tennessee.  

These days, Maggie the world traveler - Africa to Alaska to California - is warmer, slimmer, and has lots of elephantine friends.