Elephant Turns Up Her Trunk at Treadmill Work
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand. Coming up, fans of Ghana's soccer team bring their World Cup fever to southern California. But first, at the Alaska Zoo, Maggie the elephant isn't really that into sports. Her sedentary lifestyle and lack of pachyderm friends have zoo officials worried about Maggie's long-term health. But they've got a plan to get Maggie moving again. Elizabeth Arnold reports.
ELIZABETH ARNOLD reporting:
Maggie is the only elephant at the Alaska Zoo. It's impossible to know her state of mind, but many people here and across the country claim to. Here's zoo director Pat Lampi.
Mr. PAT LAMPI (Alaska Zoo director): I would say she's content.
ARNOLD: Lampi's worked here for 20 years. Maggie's been here even longer. When a herd was culled in Zimbabwe, she was shipped to Alaska to be a companion to an Asian elephant named Annabelle. The two never got along, and Annabelle died of a foot infection in 1997. Since then, animal right's groups have been challenging the treatment of elephants in captivity, arguing they need more space and more companionship.
Maggie, who lives alone and spends much of the year indoors, has become a cause celeb, and Lampi now spends most of his time answering emails and phone calls about her.
Mr. LAMPI: Well, elephants are just such a big issue anyway, you know. The joke is that there's a lot of gray area there.
(Soundbite of laughter)
ARNOLD: It's cold and dark in Anchorage most of the year, and Lampi's under fire to move Maggie somewhere warmer, where she can get more exercise. But the zoo's board came up with a different idea. Instead of moving Maggie, they would make Maggie move herself.
Is this the...
Mr. LAMPI: Yeah, this is the elephant house.
ARNOLD: Center stage in the newly expanded elephant house is a one-of-a-kind, gigantic $100,000 treadmill.
Mr. LAMPI: These grated doors on each end are operated by a wench. The idea is to get her to go over to that ramp and onto the treadmill surface, and then will come the point of now actually turning it on with her on there.
ARNOLD: That hasn't come close to happening yet, despite coaxing with apples, carrots, and even peanuts. Apparently, you can lead an elephant to a treadmill, but you can't make her workout. Maggie's not overweight at a slim 8,000 pounds, but she does need to exercise. She's put three feet up on the 25-foot long apparatus, but that's where she stops. Beth Foglesong is one of the more optimistic trainers.
Ms. BETH FOGLESONG (Elephant trainer, Alaska Zoo): We kind of gave ourselves a pretty broad window when we started, because it's not ever been done before. So no one really knows what to expect. So we were basically shooting for baby steps, literally, to get her on there. And it's been going pretty well.
Ms. LISA WATHNE (Captive Exotic Animal Specialist, PETA): It would be funny if it wasn't just so pathetically sad.
ARNOLD: The treadmill idea hasn't gone over well with animal right's groups. Lisa Wathne is captive exotic animal specialist with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Ms. WATHNE: To think that that could be a substitute for an elephant's, you know, natural movements is just - it's appalling.
ARNOLD: PETA and other groups say Maggie should be sent to one of two elephant sanctuaries in the lower 48 that provide hundreds of acres of natural habitat, and the company of other elephants.
Ms. WATHNE: That is what Maggie deserves, and the fact that the Alaska Zoo is hanging onto her is pure selfishness.
ARNOLD: Foglesong has little to say about the national debate.
Ms. FOGLESONG: My job is to come in everyday and make sure that Maggie is well cared for and that I can do the best I can for her, and that's what I do. I just work here.
ARNOLD: So that brings us to Maggie herself.
Ms. FOGLESONG: Maggie, speak.
(Soundbite of elephant roar)
Ms. FOGLESONG: She knows about 35 different voice commands.
ARNOLD: I'm no Dr. Dolittle. I can't tell if Maggie's happy or not, but today she's lounging around in a large outside area with her own pond, trees, and rocks. She started throwing sticks at us with her trunk while we were doing this interview.
She just threw that.
Ms. FOGLESONG: Yeah, she's kind of just showing off and - she likes to be the center of attention. So, she's basically telling you hey, you should be talking to me.
ARNOLD: We're talking about you right now.
The zoo plans to evaluate Maggie at the end of a three-year period, during which her yard and indoor facility are being expanded, and the trainers will continue to work with her on the treadmill. The local paper has helpfully suggested mirrors, workout gear, and an elephant-sized iPod shuffle. For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Arnold in Anchorage.
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