Following an impassioned public outcry, the Alaska Zoo board has decided to relocate the state's only elephant to another state under certain conditions, the board president said Wednesday.
"Every effort will be made to expedite a move if and when all the factors for a successful move are favorably addressed," board president Dick Thwaites said in a prepared statement.
Because there are so many criteria to meet, zoo officials said, it's impossible to predict how long it would take to move Maggie, a 25-year-old African elephant who arrived in Anchorage as an orphaned baby. Advocates want her moved to a warmer location, preferably to a sanctuary where she can roam with other elephants. At the zoo, she spends the cold half of the year in a 1,600-square-foot concrete enclosure.
The board voted late Tuesday on the relocation, citing various conditions to be met, including enlisting independent veterinarians to ensure that Maggie is healthy enough to move and could withstand the stress involved.
"If she can be certified fit for travel, then that factor's not a problem," said zoo spokeswoman Eileen Floyd. "It just takes time having a few of those factors under control."
Under the board's decision, possible sites also must be selected by zoo staffers and approved by the board. Animal transporters will work with the zoo and handle matters such as obtaining a crate for Maggie's move.
Air travel is the only form of transportation acceptable to the board for moving Maggie from Alaska to whatever destination is selected. Zoo officials said they could not yet make a reliable price estimate on the entire effort, including the cost of air and subsequent ground transportation for moving an animal estimated to weigh as much as 8,000 pounds.
Groups advocating for a relocation include In Defense of Animals and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
The zoo has procrastinated too long, said veterinarian Elliot Katz, president of San Rafael, Calif.-based In Defense of Animals. He said he's greatly concerned about Maggie's condition after viewing recent photographs, in which she looked like she had lost weight.
"I'm pleased the zoo is considering the need to do this, but they need to do it as quickly as possible because they have endangered her life," he said. "I just hope they haven't waited too long. There is no doubt in my mind that having her stay there is a death sentence."
Calls for Maggie's relocation were fueled last month when she lay down on her side in her stall twice and couldn't get up on her own. The Anchorage Fire Department was called in both times to get her back up.
Vets believe Maggie might have had colic, prompted by a change in her hay.
Maggie became Alaska's only elephant in December 1997 when the zoo's other elephant, Annabelle, died at age 33.
Several years ago, the zoo put Maggie on a diet after she tipped the scales at 9,120 pounds. She also was put on a new health regime, including having a $100,000 treadmill custom built. Trainers have yet to entice Maggie to use the 16,000-pound equipment more than a year-and-a-half after it was delivered, although zoo officials say significant progress has been made.
The treadmill — part of a $1 million program to improve the elephant's life — didn't quell ongoing concerns by critics who call the idea a waste of money. Maggie's recent ordeal, they said, is more evidence that her living conditions are unacceptable.
The zoo board had planned to review Maggie's status in August, but moved up the issue after last month's events, according to Floyd.
"The decision was based on what's best for Maggie," she said.