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Story Time w/ Aunt Phil: Alaska Zoo and an artistic elephant named Annabelle

By Laurel Downing Bill Photojournalist: Rick Rysso - 12:56 PM June 5, 2017

An elephant named Annabelle, who became prolific with a paintbrush and easel, is responsible for the creation of the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage.

It all started when Anchorage grocer Jack Snyder saw a tongue-in-cheek come-on as part of a Chiffon toilet paper contest for grocers in 1966. The Crown Zellerbach company ad announced: “$3,000 or a baby elephant” to the winner.

Snyder won the contest, and he then startled the tissue paper executives when he said, “I’ll take the elephant.”

One can just imaging the comments bandied about the boardroom after Snyder let his choice be known. Perhaps the executives said something like, “That’s right, some crazy Alaskan chose a baby elephant over $3,000 in prize money!” (which would be about $23,000 in 2017 dollars).

Those company officials searched until they found an 18-month-old Asian elephant that had worked for a circus. Her name was Annabelle.

Standing just 3-1/2 feet tall, she stepped off the plane in Anchorage on July 6, 1966. The Indian-born Annabelle was the first pachyderm in Alaska since the ice age. She spent her summer on tour flying around the state spreading good will. Alaskans loved her.

Snyder housed her at Sammye Seawell’s horse ranch on O’Malley Road that winter. Seawell’s Hillside ranch had the only heated stalls in town. A few months later he told Seawell she could keep the elephant if she wanted it. The little elephant then became part of Seawell’s family.

Annabelle soon became quite popular with Anchorage residents, which sparked an idea that would secure Annabelle’s future. Seawell persuaded Anchorage residents to form a nonprofit corporation to build a place “where the public could visit animals and learn about them.”

Seawell incorporated the Alaska Children’s Zoo on March 28, 1968. Located on land adjacent to her ranch, it opened the following year with Annabelle and other donated animals – many of which were orphaned and/or injured. The 30 acre park’s name changed to Alaska Zoo in June 1980.

Something magical happened at America’s farthest-north zoo when trainers put a paintbrush into Annabelle’s trunk in 1991. She started splattering brush strokes across canvas and created paintings in front of cheering visitors. She entertained generations of Alaskans with her artistic skill. Many people bought her abstract art.

(People questioned whether the elephant really could paint and how she could hold a brush. An elephant’s trunk has an estimated 40-50,000 muscles, at least 63 times more than an entire human body. The trunk is sensitive and flexible. Its tip also has a prehensile extension called a finger. That helps the animal perform delicate tasks and pick up small objects.)

Annabelle’s prints raised several hundred thousand dollars for the zoo. Her art also graced note cards and coffee mugs.

Annabelle died on Dec. 15, 1997, at the age of 33, following complications from a foot infection. A tombstone embedded with her photograph marks the corner of the zoo where she is buried.

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