Sammye Seawell, the woman credited with starting the Alaska Zoo, died last week. She was 100 years old.

Seawell’s daughter, Linda McQueary said her mother always had a big heart for animals and offered their home to many of them well before the zoo was established.

Those creatures included a hair seal named Oley that lived in the family’s bathtub but often traveled with them. McQueary said there were others who also occupied the family home.

“We had an ocelot that was pretty awful in the house, that was Tang,” she said. “She had part of the office blocked off at one point, there was a black bear cub named Tuffy. There was a raccoon, there was a parade of stuff.”

But it was an elephant named Annabelle that captured Seawell’s heart.

Annabelle arrived in Alaska in 1966. She was one of two prizes offered in a national contest that was won by a local grocer. The choice was $3,000 or a baby elephant and the grocer chose the latter. McQueary said it wasn’t long before Annabelle moved into the family barn.

“She had to be bottle fed and mother did that,” she said. “And they bond, you know, the elephants imprint. And pretty soon the elephant was following her all over the neighborhood.”

According to McQueary, people came by the carloads to see the young elephant who was growing rapidly. When she outgrew the barn stall, Seawell began to rally friends and community members to consider building a zoo where it would be easier for fans to visit.

“She begged, persuaded, hammered, whatever. She thought this was a good idea and the seal went over there and then gradually a collection of animals until it grew.”

From it’s opening day in 1969 and the decades that followed, Seawell was involved in nearly every operation of the zoo.

Zoo director Pat Lampi called Seawell a “driving force” that shaped what the Alaska Zoo is today. He said even in her later years, she stayed involved, often checking on the plants that she loved to tend in the zoo greenhouse.

“She would come in and walk around grounds and let us know if something wasn’t looking quite right,” Lampi said. “Have suggestions all the time.”

Seawell died on Nov. 25. A memorial service is scheduled for this Sunday at the Alaska Zoo from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Instead of flowers, donations to the zoo will be accepted.

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