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Alone in the cold, elephant inspires a heated debate

She played in the snow. She played the harmonica. She snacked on hot dog buns and hay, chewed on birch bark and snorted.

Still, it was impossible to answer the question that is causing so much consternation: Is Alaska's only elephant happy?

Maggie, the African elephant who has resided at the Alaska Zoo since 1983 _ a creature of the tropics amid snow leopards and polar bears _ is, after all, said to be rather moody and prickly.

But whether Maggie, a 22-year-old native of Zimbabwe, is depressed because she is spending another dark and freezing winter in Alaska has been the subject of a long and charged debate.

Facing growing demands that she be moved to a warmer climate, where she could socialize with other elephants and get much more outdoor exercise, Alaska Zoo officials decided to keep her in Anchorage for now but came up with an unusual proposal: They plan to build this 9,120-pound elephant a treadmill.

"I just don't know where you are going to put her where she's happier than she is here," Rob Smith, Maggie's trainer and manager for the past seven years, said on a recent frigid day at the zoo, as Maggie stomped around her concrete barn.

The zoo has been under fire from national animal rights groups and some Alaska residents, who, in atypical acceptance of outside interference, have called for a boycott of the zoo until Maggie is moved south. Other zoos across the country, including those in San Francisco and Detroit, facing similar criticism and internal debates about the treatment of elephants in captivity, have closed their elephant exhibits in recent months, saying they were relocating the animals to warmer climates and to wide-open sanctuaries where they could roam for miles.

The plan is to complete the treadmill, a first-of-its kind $100,000 elephant exercise machine, by the summer. It would be 20 feet long and 5 feet wide, according to the plans, with a conveyer belt strong enough to allow Maggie, who is kept indoors during most of the long winter, to get her blood flowing and move her creaky joints, zoo officials say.

A donor already has paid for the treadmill, the officials say, part of a roughly $500,000 "elephant house" improvement plan that would double the space in Maggie's 1,600-square-foot barn and add other amenities. Maggie, who has been trained to play the harmonica and to paint in watercolor with her trunk, would have to be trained to use the treadmill.

If it keeps Maggie in shape, preventing the arthritis and foot infections that have plagued other elephants in the nation's zoos, then remaining in Anchorage is best for her, zoo officials say. Maggie has a history of not getting along with other elephants and is easily made anxious by change, so the risks in moving her from "the only home she has known" outweigh the benefits, they say.

Smith contended, as did other zoo officials, that when the Alaska Zoo had two elephants _ Annabelle, an Asian elephant, died of a foot infection in 1997 _ Maggie was miserable and aggressive.

But animal rights groups and outside elephant experts say it is cruel to keep an elephant alone, particularly a female who is meant to socialize with other elephants.

"A lone elephant is clearly not a good thing," said Ron L. Kagan, director of the Detroit Zoo, which last month decided to move its two arthritic elephants, Wanda and Winky, to a sanctuary in California.

"The fact that she's without elephant companionship _ we shouldn't fool ourselves that somehow humans are the equivalent," said Kagan. "I'd say that's a very challenged elephant."

The Detroit Zoo has decided to close its elephant exhibit permanently. The San Francisco Zoo sent one elephant, Tinkerbelle, to a sanctuary in November and plans to send its last remaining elephant, Lulu, there too, officials there said.

"People's expectations of a zoo are to see animals like lions and tigers and elephants," Kagan said. "But also, I think that now the expectation is to only see elephants that are thriving."

Nicole Meyer, elephant specialist for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which has made Maggie a cause celebre in recent months, derided the Alaska Zoo's decision to keep Maggie as "selfish" and said the treadmill plan was a "truly ridiculous concept."

Even elephant experts who support keeping the widely popular elephant exhibits open are skeptical of the treadmill.

"People use treadmills," said Mike Keele, deputy director of the Oregon Zoo. "I guess it's an interesting concept. But I'm not sure what the message is _ for visitors to come up and see an elephant on a treadmill and somehow make a connection with nature? That's a tough one."