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Maggie, the Alaska Zoo's old elephant, is loving retirement

  • Author: Megan Edge
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published March 6, 2016

SAN ANDREAS, Calif. -- If you grew up in Anchorage in the 1980s or '90s, your parents probably took you to see Maggie the elephant, who spent 24 years at the Alaska Zoo. Seen through a child's eyes, she seemed exotic and majestic. But her reality was a bleak life of chains, cramped quarters and illness.

While she delighted thousands of visitors, the small zoo just wasn't a suitable home for two elephants (Maggie and Annabelle, who died in 1997). Maggie would stand on the concrete floor of the small elephant house, swaying nervously, or drag herself around on the floor and give herself sores.

Not anymore. Ever since she was brought to a Northern California wildlife sanctuary in 2007, she's been loving life -- and learning how to be an elephant again.

Maggie spends her days ambling around the green, rolling hills of the Performing Animal Welfare Society in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The co-founder and president of PAWS, Ed Stewart, said she has more than 20 acres to roam in and a large elephant barn with padded, heated floors. At the Alaska Zoo, she had no green space.

A new life

On a tour of the sanctuary in January, Stewart pointed out that Maggie was tossing dirt onto her back with her trunk -- a normal elephant behavior that she hadn't had much chance to do before. Her skin looked tan and healthy. She seemed happy and free.

Maggie never swayed from side to side or waved her head up and down during the tour, which is a good thing. Stewart said both behaviors are bad habits that the elephants at PAWS learned before they were at the sanctuary because they were chained, confined to small spaces or both. Too much of either behavior can cause arthritis and foot disease, which can eventually prove fatal.

Overall, Maggie's health has improved a great deal. Stewart said Maggie has some long-term medical issues and injuries from events at the zoo. There are problems with the way she stands and holds her head, but she's much more mobile than she once was. Climbing hills is the best thing for her, Stewart said. At PAWS, she can climb up to 1,000 feet in elevation if she wants.

Alaska Zoo Director Pat Lampi, who orchestrated Maggie's move to California, agreed that her current environment is far healthier.

"It's amazing what (having) some hills to walk on can do for your health," Lampi said.

Maggie never spends any time with a chain around her ankle anymore. Stewart said the only time that could happen is for a major medical procedure, but otherwise she's footloose. At the Alaska Zoo, Maggie would be chained for feedings and medical work, and when she became aggressive.

"There were a couple of times she went after people and so she was put on the chain," Lampi said.

No one ever uses a bullhook on Maggie anymore, either. A bullhook is a long rod with a spike on the end used by trainers to establish dominance over the animal. Lampi said this practice was stopped at the Alaska Zoo a few years before her departure, but is still common in some areas of the U.S. PAWS is not one of those places. Instead they use positive reinforcement, which Lampi passionately supports.

'Miss Congeniality'

In California, Maggie gets to be social. She lives with two other African elephants -- LouLou and Mara. At 50 years old, LouLou is the second-oldest African elephant in the U.S. She is Maggie's best friend.

"If Maggie is asleep outside, LouLou almost always will stand by her and watch over her," Stewart explained. "Mara will lie down and sleep with her."

According to Stewart, at one point Maggie lived with five elephants. She got along just fine.

"Maggie is unusual," Stewart said. "She is kind of treated as the baby because she is so small and she's not dominant. She'll go up to the most dominant elephant and eat. Everyone cuts Maggie some slack. She is protective of LouLou, who's timid. If anyone is trying to push LouLou, Maggie will stand in between."

"Maggie is Miss Congeniality," Stewart said.

When Maggie lived with Annabelle at the Alaska Zoo, Lampi said, she was treated like more of a "subordinate."

"They would be outside playing and when Annabelle would decide it was time to come inside, she would push Maggie inside and close the door with her tail," Lampi said.

A group of college students on the tour at PAWS were taken aback when Stewart told them Maggie came to PAWS "all the way from Alaska." They were taken even further aback when he told them she was brought to Alaska to be a companion to Annabelle, an older Asian elephant who'd been won in a tissue paper selling contest.

From Africa to Alaska

Maggie was born in 1982 in South Africa's Kruger National Park. Shortly after her birth, Maggie's mother was killed in a government-ordered cull killing -- a population control technique to keep elephants from encroaching on human territory. The orphaned Maggie was sent to live in Anchorage, where she arrived at the Alaska Zoo on Sept. 28, 1983. There she lived as a companion to Annabelle until Annabelle's death in 1997.

Maggie continued to live at the zoo for another decade, but her health and well-being deteriorated after Annabelle died. She fell ill with colic twice during her time at the zoo, Lampi said. She'd go down and wouldn't be able to get up without the help of zoo personnel and emergency responders. Eventually she was put in a giant sling, which would help them get Maggie on her feet if it happened again. When she'd go down, she'd drag herself around and leave open wounds all over her body.

In 2007, after extensive public outcry, the zoo decided to send Maggie to a better place. But getting her there wouldn't be easy.

Special delivery

When Maggie left Anchorage on Nov. 1, 2007, she hadn't fully recovered from colic. Lampi said she had to be "well enough" to make the trip, but still had the wounds on her body.

The day of Maggie's move was one of the longest days of both Stewart's and Lampi's lives. In a meeting at the zoo shortly before Maggie's departure on a C-17, Lampi and Stewart were told of a flight procedure neither of them had heard before.

"It was like, 'This is a (multi)billion-dollar airplane,'" Lampi explained. "'If we have to drop the load to save the airplane, we'll drop her, that's what we'll do.' Then they go, 'That will never happen with such a light load,' but I was still like, 'Where is her parachute?'"

"I was in denial," Stewart said. "I remember how long they said the flight would be. ... They said the trip would be four hours and 18 minutes, so that is what I focused on."

The flight went well. Maggie wasn't sedated. Stewart said she was alert, even eating and drinking, during the flight.

When Maggie joined the other elephants at PAWS, she went in swinging her trunk and "acting like an elephant," Stewart said.

There are some Alaska habits that have stuck with her, though. Stewart said she picked up an unusual clicking sound in Alaska, which she demonstrated on the tour. He said they don't know where she got it from. Lampi laughed when asked about it. He knows the sound, but couldn't explain why she does it.

It's a sign that while she's been able to let go of the trauma she's experienced, she hasn't forgotten her old life in Alaska.

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