Maggie, a 23-year-old African elephant who has called the Alaska Zoo, in Anchorage, home for the past 22 years, has packed on the pounds – a whole one thousand of them.
During the long, cold sub-Arctic winters, Maggie is confined to an inside enclosure with less room to roam, an activity that typically takes up 16 hours of the day for an elephant foraging for food and water in the wild.
“Elephants are just like people. They will be as lazy as they can be and still eat,” Tex Edwards, the director of the Alaska Zoo said.
But critics have argued that the best way to maintain Maggie’s health is to place her in an environment that bears a greater similarity to conditions in the wild – with more open space and the company of other elephants.
“There’s no comparison to a treadmill versus life in the wild or in a sanctuary,” Nicole Meyer, an elephant specialist with the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) group told the Associated Press (AP) news agency.
“Female elephants are highly social and to keep them in solitary confinement is completely cruel.”
Maggie’s companion, an Asian elephant named Annabelle, died in 1997 and she has been without company since.
On average, female African elephants weigh up to 3,600 kilograms and males can tip the scales at 6,800 kilos.
Desperate to peel off her excess weight, which topped 4,000 kilograms in April, zookeepers instituted a strict regime of dieting and racked their brains for an exercise solution.
A call for help in constructing an elephant treadmill was answered by the Idaho-based Conveyor Engineering, a company that specialises in designing heavy-duty conveyor systems for the mining industry.
“I figured that we put rocks on our conveyor belt that are as big as an elephant, and a treadmill is basically a conveyor, so building one would be no big deal,” Conveyor Engineering vice president, Sid Cannon told AP.
But while treadmills for animal use have already been made for dogs, race horses and even camels, elephants are a whole new ball game.
Conveyor Engineering, which offered its services free of charge, has been working on the six-metre long treadmill since March.
As elephants stand on two legs at a time when walking, the machine has to be able to withstand highly concentrated weight distribution.
Fortunately, Maggie’s keepers have managed to trim some extra weight off their charge in the intervening months, and she is now believed to have dropped in size to a little over 3,600 kilograms.
Preparations are underway to install the treadmill in the zoo, but there is now the question of how to train Maggie to use the fitness device.