Over the course of half a century, Asian elephant Packy inspired millions of Oregon Zoo visitors and taught us a great deal of what we know about elephant care. He was the continent's oldest elephant, a cherished Portland icon and one of the most famous animals in the world.
Packy was born to Belle and Thonglaw at the Oregon Zoo shortly before 6 a.m. on April 14, 1962. He was the first elephant to be born in North America in 44 years. Newspapers and radio stations around the world announced the birth of the 225-pound baby, and Life magazine covered the event with an 11-page spread describing "The Nativity of Packy."
Packy spent his life surrounded by his extended herd and caretakers. When male elephants come of age in the wild, they leave their families and spend most of their time on their own or in bachelor groups, only interacting with the females periodically. It was the same for Packy. Despite having access to the rest of the elephants for most of his life, he preferred to be on his own. Portland was Packy's home, and he was a fixture in the community. Over the course of his life, he was featured in books, parade floats, murals and songs. On his 50th birthday, he was knighted by Portland's Royal Rosarians – making him "Sir Knight Packy."
When Packy moved into the Elephant Lands habitat on May 26, 2015, he was poised almost literally between the past and the future. Behind him, the Eisenhower-era elephant barn in which he was born — constructed when the zoo first moved to its current Washington Park location in 1959 — and before him, the impressive new indoor facility that promises to usher in a new era in elephant welfare. Elephant Lands was designed specifically with Packy 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 his species.
In September, 2016, Packy cultured positive for TB, the first positive test since his initial diagnosis in 2013. Packy never showed clinical signs of being sick with TB. But from the start, treating him proved challenging — in part due to his age, in part to unpredictable musth cycles, and in part because he was less tolerant of one of the medications. The zoo worked with the USDA to create a customized treatment plan for him, taking all of these factors into consideration. Unfortunately, these treatments also proved to be ineffective.
End of life
In his last days, Packy was suffering from an active, drug-resistant form of TB that required him to be separated from the other elephants and mostly away from public view. Because of the drug resistance, treatment options for Packy had become extremely limited, and those that existed would have been very hard on him physically with no guarantee of success. None of his caregivers felt it would be right to do that. But without treatment, his TB would have continued to get worse — and they could not bear to see him suffer in that way either. Having run out of treatment options for his TB, zoo experts — with sadness and compassion —decided the most humane course of action was to euthanize him. On February 9, 2017, Packy passed away peacefully in the presence of caregivers he had known for years and formed close bonds with. He was buried on Metro-owned property in a peaceful, wooded area that is not open to the public.
Packy's birth helped scientists better understand elephants – his mother's pregnancy established the length of elephant gestation, for example – and opened the door to a new era in elephant welfare and research. Discoveries from Oregon Zoo elephant pheromone (hormone scent) and infrasonic (low frequency sound) communication studies have been applied in Asia for proactive elephant management around developed areas, reducing human-elephant conflict. Packy inspired millions of visitors, and marked the birth of an internationally recognized Asian Elephant program.
Considered highly endangered in their range countries, it is estimated that just 40,000 to 50,000 elephants remain in fragmented populations from India to Borneo. The zoo supports a broad range of efforts to help wild elephants, and recently established a $1 million endowment fund supporting Asian elephant conservation.
A memorial activity to celebrate Packy's long and eventful life is being scheduled for later this month. Details will be posted on the zoo's website and social media pages once they are available. Those who would like to make a gift to honor Packy's legacy may contribute to the Asian Elephant conservation fund, a permanent endowment aimed at ensuring the survival of this imperiled species.