ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) -- Anchorage zookeepers are installing a 16,000-pound treadmill to keep an isolated elephant from getting fat during the long, cold Alaskan winters.
The 20-foot-long treadmill was designed specifically for Maggie, a 23-year-old female African elephant that has become the subject of a national debate over the proper care for captive pachyderms.
"It looks just like a big people treadmill," said Patrick Lampi, assistant director of the Alaska Zoo.
Because this is the first treadmill ever built for an elephant, zoo officials and an Idaho company studied mining equipment and treadmills used for race horses and racing camels, Lampi said.
Zookeepers said Zimbabwe-born Maggie would start using the treadmill in about two months.
The zoo is remodeling her indoor and outdoor spaces, making both about twice as large as before and adding a sandy area. In addition, the floor has been heated and the zoo is evaluating ways to make it softer, Lampi said.
Critics from Anchorage and around the nation have urged the zoo to send Maggie to an elephant sanctuary in a warmer climate and away from the near-Arctic zoo.
Elephants, particularly females, are herd creatures and need company, critics have said. But Maggie's companion, an Asian elephant named Annabelle, died in 1997.
Maggie's weight-loss program started more than a year ago, Lampi said, "She was slightly heavy for an elephant."
With diet modifications and new exercise inducements, such as hiding food in baskets and other sites that require some work to reach, Maggie has slimmed down a bit and is now believed to weigh a little over 8,000 pounds.
"We estimate that she lost maybe 1,000 pounds," Lampi said.