Mary Pemberton, Associated Press
After living nearly her whole life in chilly Alaska, Maggie the elephant began her journey Thursday to broader horizons and warmer weather at a California sanctuary.
Alaska's only elephant was loaded and locked into a special metal crate at the Alaska Zoo and then placed on a flatbed truck for the short trip to Elmendorf Air Force Base, where a C-17 cargo plane was waiting to fly the pachyderm to Travis Air Force Base in Northern California. The plane took off Thursday evening.
From there, Maggie was to be trucked 85 miles to the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) in San Andreas, Calif., where she will have 30 acres to share with nine other elephants.
The U.S. Air Force stepped in to transport the elephant after zoo officials determined she would not fit with her metal crate through the doors of the largest U.S. commercial airplane. A Russian aircraft was considered but ruled out because its cargo area isn't pressurized.
The 25-year-old elephant arrived in Alaska as a baby in 1983 after her herd was culled in South Africa. The move to California became reality after retired game show host Bob Barker promised to donate $750,000 for her care there. PAWS is paying the approximately $200,000 cost of the military transport.
Zoo director Pat Lampi said from start to finish Maggie would spend about 16 hours in the metal crate, including the five-hour flight.
"She is taking it well. She's very calm," Lampi said, after a crane was brought in to lift the metal crate off the flatbed truck and place it on a loader for the drive to the cargo plane.
Lt. Gen. Douglas Fraser, commander of the 11th Air Force, said this was only the second time that the Air Force had been called in to transport a large animal. The other time was in 1998 when the killer whale Keiko was flown to Iceland. Fraser said the plane would be kept at a comfortable 65 to 70 degrees for Maggie. Its takeoffs and landings also would be more gradual to keep from scaring her.
"We don't want to get her riled," Fraser said.
Brig. Gen. Tom Tinsley, commander of the 3rd wing, said the combined weight of the elephant and her crate at 17,000 pounds was no problem. An M-I tank weighs 135,000 pounds. The challenge could be placing the elephant and her crate in the plane so it doesn't fly nose up or tail down, he said.
The entire trip was expected to take 12 hours.
While the elephant was being prepared for loading onto the plane, zookeeper Tessa Kara fed her peanuts, apples, bananas and licorice through a ventilation hole in her crate. The elephant kept poking her trunk out through the hole, looking for more.
That was a sign that Maggie was not feeling stressed, Kara said. Debate waged for years in Alaska about whether it was appropriate to keep an elephant in a city where winter temperatures dip to 20 degrees below zero. Calls to move Maggie increased after the zoo's only other elephant, Annabelle, died of a foot infection in 1997, leaving Maggie alone. Elephant experts recommend that female elephants, which are very social, should be housed with other female elephants.
Instead of moving Maggie, the zoo board embarked on an expensive campaign to improve her quality of life, including providing her with a $150,000 treadmill that she never really used. Lampi said the zoo will try to find a buyer for the treadmill.
Then, this year Maggie twice could not get up and the fire department had to be called in to hoist her into a standing position.
That was the tipping point that decided Maggie's future, said Penelope Wells, with Friends of Maggie, a grass-roots group that advocated for her move.
"Maggie's day is finally here. After 25 years she is finally heading south to be with other elephants in a truly beautiful sanctuary," she said. "We are really elated."
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