Lazy Elephant Not Eager to Use Custom-Made Treadmill

So far, it's the trainers at the Alaska Zoo who are breaking a sweat trying to coax Maggie the elephant onto the world's first treadmill for a pachyderm.

Despite months of training using treats to entice the elephant to work out, the sometimes cantankerous African elephant is not much interested in using her treadmill to go for a brisk morning walk, or for that matter an afternoon or evening walk.

Maggie, for the most part, is chilling out.

For two months, Maggie's trainers have used her favorite treats — watermelon, apples, carrots, peanuts in the shell, banana slices and sweet potatoes — to entice the 8,000-pound elephant onto her $100,000 custom-made treadmill.

While Maggie's made some progress, she has a long way to go.

"She has two feet on the treadmill and has touched a third one on it," zoo director Pat Lampi said Tuesday. "Every six inches forward is a new goal. There are a lot of steps to go."

Maggie's trainers and zoo staff aren't discouraged.

"It is just a matter of getting that fourth foot up off the concrete floor," said elephant trainer Rob Smith.

The Alaska Zoo is letting Maggie call the shots. Trainers can tell just by looking at her that some days she wants to train. Other days not.

"They learn every day of their lives. They're like people," Smith said. "Just like in school, there were days you didn't want to be in the lecture hall."

Trainers are using target training to encourage Maggie to use her treadmill. The training consists of three or four times a day, using a wooden ball on the end of a dowel to direct her toward the treadmill. If she moves toward the wooden ball, she gets a treat. If she doesn't, no treat.

"You can't predict these things. It is up to her entirely," Smith said.

Lampi said he wouldn't be surprised if it took a year or more to get Maggie actually walking on the treadmill.

"Everything is being done in her comfort levels," he said. "This is totally new to her, walking on the treadmill and moving forward. ... It is baby steps."

The treadmill is part of a $1 million program the zoo launched two years ago to improve Maggie's life after deciding to keep Alaska's only elephant instead of placing her at another facility, perhaps in a warmer climate, with more elephants.

Maggie arrived at the zoo in 1983 as a baby when her herd in Kruger National Park in South Africa was culled. She has been alone since Dec. 14, 1997, when the zoo's other elephant died at age 33 of a foot infection.

The zoo's improvement program for Maggie included doubling the size of the elephant house and installing new heating, light and ventilation systems, including upgraded radiant heat in the concrete floor. Her outdoor paddock was doubled in size.

Feeding stations were placed high so that she now stretches for her food. Treats are hidden around her enclosure to help keep her busy. She's provided birch logs to strip the bark off.

The extra activity and a diet have helped Maggie shed about 1,000 pounds.

"We think she's at a good weight now. It is just a matter of maintaining that," Lampi said.

The treadmill, made with the help of a Boise, Idaho-based company that designs heavy-duty conveyor systems used in mining, was delivered to the zoo in September. Lampi said they had hoped to have Maggie taking walks on it by Thanksgiving.

"We knew this was going to possibly take a long time," Lampi said. "We were hoping she would take right to it."

Maggie has been asked to make a lot of adjustments lately, said Mike Keele, deputy director of the Oregon Zoo in Portland, Ore., and chairman of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums' species survival program for elephants.

"I think probably there is a lot going on in Maggie's mind right now," Keele said. "I think she is probably trying to build a level of confidence. I think in time she will use it."