Beloved geriatric pachyderm explores Elephant Lands as staff considers next steps
As Packy took his first-ever swim in the new 160,000-gallon pool at Elephant Lands this week, zoo veterinarians and animal-care experts were planning their next steps in the difficult task of combating his tuberculosis.
Last week, a routine trunk-wash culture for the geriatric pachyderm came back positive, indicating the presence of active TB. It was the first positive culture since Packy's initial diagnosis in December 2013, and an indicator that the current regimen is not successfully treating the infection.
"We had been feeling positive about this regimen, and Packy has been tolerating it well, so the new result is disappointing," said Dr. Tim Storms, the zoo's lead veterinarian. "Now it's time for us to reassess and determine a path forward."
Managing TB in elephants is often difficult since little is known about treating the disease outside of humans, according to Dr. Storms. In recent years, the zoo has successfully treated TB in two other elephants, Rama and Tusko, adding to the collective knowledge about diagnostics and care. Packy's treatment has been more challenging though — in part due to his age, in part to unpredictable musth cycles, and in part because he has proved less tolerant of one of the medications.
Age is one factor that must be taken into account when determining an appropriate treatment course, Dr. Storms said. At 54, Packy is the oldest male of his species on the continent, and one of the oldest on the planet.
"Packy is in good health otherwise, especially considering how old he is," Dr. Storms said. "Above all else, we need to make sure he's comfortable and that we're doing what's right for him."
After receiving the latest culture results, Dr. Storms informed public health authorities, who confirmed that the zoo's current safety protocols are effective and should remain in place.
"We've continued to work closely with the zoo," said Dr. Jennifer Vines, deputy health officer for Multnomah County. "They've been very careful about making sure visitors, volunteers and staff are safe."
The zoo has also exercised an abundance of caution to ensure the health of its other elephants, Dr. Storms said. A year of steady treatment is required before Packy can share the same space with other elephants or come within 100 feet of the public. Unfortunately, that level of care means it's still not easy for Packy's fans to see him.
"You can catch glimpses of him from time to time in the southernmost yard, which is to the right as you're walking along the pathway into Forest Hall," said elephant curator Bob Lee, who has worked with the beloved elephant for 16 years. "And we'll continue to share photos and videos whenever we can."
The latest results will have little impact on Packy's day-to-day life, which involves lots of outdoor time and attention from caregivers. Keepers are thrilled that he has recently begun exploring the full run of Elephant Lands, the impressive new habitat that promises to usher in a new era in elephant welfare.
Notoriously reluctant to try anything new, Packy ventured into the south habitat for the first time in July, and took his first dip in the swimming pool — bobbing for apples and yams — on Monday evening.
"That was great to see," Lee said. "Packy is the reason for all of this. He is the connection between the old and the new. Packy was the first elephant born here in 1962, and we designed Elephant Lands specifically with him in mind — both as a comfortable home for him to live out his golden years in, and as a legacy to all he has helped us learn about this amazing species."