A 16,000-pound treadmill specifically built to exercise Maggie the elephant arrived at the Alaska Zoo, but the question remains: Just how do you get a more than 4-ton animal fighting the battle of the bulge to use a treadmill?
Zoo director Tex Edwards is optimistic she can do it.
"Every time we've undertaken to teach Maggie something new she has always learned it faster than we anticipated," Edwards said Tuesday. "She seems to enjoy new challenges."
The 20-foot-long by 8-foot-wide treadmill was built by Conveyor Engineering, an Idaho-based company that designs heavy-duty conveyor systems for mining. Automatic Welding in Anchorage put the treadmill together, believed to be the first one built specifically for an elephant.
"They have built them for race horses and race camels but never for an elephant," said assistant zoo director Pat Lampi.
The treadmill arrived Monday and was lowered through the roof, which has been removed for a renovation project to double Maggie's living space.
"It came on a flatbed truck and then they had this huge crane lift it up and swing it over and lower it down into its position," Lampi said.
The treadmill sits in a well in the elephant house so that it will be flush with the floor. It also is equipped with gates on either end so she can get on and off the treadmill, which is separated from her main living quarters by steel beams.
Zoo officials are eager to get the elephant house renovation completed and Maggie back in her permanent home before the snow flies in October. Since summer, she's been housed in a temporary shelter of empty truck trailers equipped with two large heaters that are turned on when the temperature dips below 50 degrees.
At last weigh-in in August 2004, Maggie tipped the scales at 9,120 pounds, about 1,000 pounds overweight. But Lampi estimates that under her new diet and health regime — even without the benefit of the treadmill — she's lost roughly 900 pounds.
Maggie's weight became an issue when the broader question of her welfare was raised when the zoo's only other elephant died of a chronic foot infection in 1997. The American Zoo and Aquarium Association in Washington, D.C., an accrediting organization, recommends that female elephants be kept in groups of three or more. The AZA recommended Maggie be moved but the zoo's board of directors decided to keep her as long as improvements were made for her care.
One of the challenges with captive elephants is to get them enough exercise, Lampi said. In the wild, African elephants spend their time foraging for food. In an effort to simulate that experience, Maggie has had to strain and reach for her food, now hung from structures inside her paddock as part of her lifestyle enrichment program. Her diet also was changed to help her shed some pounds.
For months, Maggie's handlers have been using positive reinforcement target training to prepare her for her daily exercise regimen. Using a stick with a ball on the end, the elephant is being trained to present her feet, her trunk and her ears to handlers as part of an improved health program to make blood draws, foot care and trunk washes easier.
So far, Maggie, a 23-year-old African elephant with a tendency toward irritability, has taken to the training well, Lampi said, describing her as "pretty darn compliant."
Maggie's handlers hope to use the same positive reinforcement technique to get her, well ... if not up and running, at least moving at first. Lampi predicts a slow start.
"The first time she's on it ... it will be barely moving," he said.
Maybe later, the treadmill's incline feature can be utilized and it can be sped up to give her a brisk, healthful walk.
"Since nobody has ever done it before we are proceeding very cautiously, making sure she and all the people involved are very comfortable," Lampi said.
Edwards predicted Maggie will become a shining example of the benefits of regular exercise for overweight pachyderms worldwide.
"We think it is possible that a lot of elephants around the world will find more regular exercise a beneficial addition to their lives," he said.