By Tom Brennan |

Like many retired Alaskans, Maggie moved to California and joined a clique. But Maggie is unique; she is an elephant.

Before her departure, Maggie played a key role in the development of the Alaska Zoo. She came here in 1983 to be a companion to Annabelle, the Asian elephant around whom the Alaska Zoo was founded.

Annabelle came to Anchorage in an unlikely way. She was the prize in a Chiffon Tissue contest won by grocer Jack Snyder. The winner could accept either a check for $3,000 or a baby elephant. Snyder chose the elephant.

After Jack’s elephant arrived in Anchorage, he quickly decided that keeping her at his downtown home was not going to work. He arranged with his friend Sammye Seawell to keep the elephant named Annabelle on Sammye’s 25-acre Diamond H Horse Ranch in the Hillside area of South Anchorage.

He soon gave the elephant to Sammye and a few years later she founded the Alaska Children’s Zoo, bringing in orphaned animals including a black bear, seal, Arctic fox and petting zoo goats. That pioneering venture later grew into the Alaska Zoo, today one of the city’s leading attractions.

Annabelle was hugely popular with Anchorage residents and visitors alike. She was a pampered critter housed in a heated enclosure, well and carefully fed, given medical care and whatever else she needed. But Annabelle was lonely and needed the company of another elephant. In 1983 an orphaned female African elephant named Maggie came to the Alaska Zoo and became Annabelle’s live-in buddy. The two critters got along famously and Annabelle was a happy girl.

Annabelle passed away in 1997 from a foot infection and Maggie was alone. Pat Lampi, then the zoo’s curator and nowadays its executive director, watched Annabelle carefully and worked hard to keep her happy and comfortable. Bringing another elephant to Alaska would have been difficult then because public sentiment worldwide was toward moving elephants out of cold climates whenever possible.

The Alaska Zoo’s efforts warded off most of the ill effects of Alaska’s winter climate and her health problems were carefully addressed. Those included some skin and hoof ailments which had to be closely watched and treated. The zoo built a $100,000 treadmill for Maggie in hopes of giving her some exercise but she wasn’t much interested in a human-style workout.

With mounting pressure from animal activists, the Alaska Zoo decided in 2007 to move Maggie to a sanctuary in California that serves primarily as a retirement home for retired circus elephants. The U.S. Air Force offered to help and said they could move Maggie to the Golden State as a training exercise for a C-17 crew. She made the flight accompanied by two veterinarians, an animal behavior specialist, several Alaska Zoo staff members and Ed Stewart, the co-founder of the Performing Animal Welfare Society facility where Maggie was headed.

When she arrived at the elephant shelter, Maggie stepped out the back of the truck she rode in, looked around and spotted an elephant named Lulu. Maggie sprinted across the ground and Lulu welcomed her. The two instantly became bff’s, a friendship that continues today. And in recent years they have been joined by Toka, an African elephant moved to the PAWS facility with several others newly retired from the Toronto Zoo in British Columbia. Maggie, Lulu and Toka have formed the elephant version of a clique and stick together day and night. Pat Lampi says he is not surprised by Maggie’s social success. He says she has a charming personality and could easily win the title “Miss Congeniality” in an elephant competition.

Elephants are highly intelligent animals and many of them take up painting when encouraged by their trainers. Alaska’s Annabelle was such an artist and would hold a brush with her trunk, dip it in various paint colors and make broad sweeps that resulted in a unique and attractive swoosh design.

My wife and I acquired one of Annabelle’s paintings. Then several years ago one of our distant relatives, a talented human artist named Graham Franciose, visited us from his home in Austin, Texas.

When Graham found one of his paintings on the wall of our home I couldn’t resist telling him: “The painting outside your bedroom door was done by an elephant.”

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