Zoo says goodbye to beloved Asian elephant Rama

March 30, 2015 - 2:27pm

Rama, Packy's son, was known for his mild temperament and bold tempera paintings

Rama, a 31-year-old Asian elephant known for his sweet disposition and Jackson Pollock-like painting technique, was humanely euthanized at the Oregon Zoo today after animal-care staff determined they could no longer help pain and mobility issues resulting from a 25-year-old leg injury.

Rama sustained the injury in 1990, when older female elephants began to push the young, sexually maturing bull out of the herd, something that occurs naturally in the wild, according to zoo deputy director Chris Pfefferkorn. During this process, Rama fell into a moat that in those days surrounded the elephant area.


"Many keepers had a close bond with Rama because they were committed to providing the special care he required to live comfortably for so long after a severe injury."

—Bob Lee, elephant curator

"It was a serious injury," Pfefferkorn said. "Many would have said this would be the end for Rama, but he was a survivor and went on to have a great, enriched life."

Pfefferkorn said the zoo elephant enclosure was redesigned following Rama's accident, and the moat was filled in. It was unearthed by construction workers last year during excavation for the Forest Hall portion of the zoo's new Elephant Lands habitat.

Rama compensated for the injury by placing more weight on his right front leg, causing him to walk with an unusual gait that was immediately noticeable to all who knew him well.

"Instead of his weight being distributed evenly over four legs, it was distributed over three," said zoo veterinarian Tim Storms. "That puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the other legs over time."

With his leg healed, Rama did well for many years, Dr. Storms said, thanks to a dedicated zoo staff and a combination of exercise, therapy and medication. During the past several weeks, however, he experienced a sharp decline in his mobility. Physical therapy techniques and anti-inflammatory medications that had been successful for many years were no longer easing his discomfort, and new modifications were not able to improve his quality of life. Not wanting Rama to suffer, management and staff made the difficult decision to humanely euthanize him.

"We knew Rama's injury would catch up with him someday, but it still doesn't make the loss any easier," said Bob Lee, zoo elephant curator. "This is a sad day for everyone at the zoo. My heart goes out especially to all the keepers and animal-care staff who have been close to Rama through the years. Many keepers had a close bond with Rama because they were committed to providing the special care he required to live comfortably for so long after a severe injury."

Though Rama had been diagnosed with tuberculosis in 2013, the disease was not a factor in his decline, Storms said. Rama did well with his TB treatments right from the start, showing no signs of sickness and consistently testing negative since the initial positive result more than a year and a half ago.

Born April 1, 1983, Rama was the son of Oregon's first elephant, Rosy, and the famed Packy, the oldest male of his species on the continent.

At around 8,000 pounds, he was the smallest of the zoo's three bull elephants, and was said to have an unusually sweet temperament, forming close relationships with zoo staff, some of whom cared for him for more than 10 years. He also had a special bond with Chendra, the orphaned female Bornean elephant who arrived at the zoo in 1999.

"They were good friends," Pfefferkorn said. "They really enjoyed each other's company."

Former Rama caregiver Jeb Barsh, now a keeper in the zoo's Africa section, recalled Rama's "joyful soul" — perhaps expressed most memorably through his painting, an enrichment activity that grew into something bigger when Rama showed a remarkable enthusiasm for it.

"He would follow me around, just hoping for the opportunity to paint," Barsh said. "Once he grabbed a brush, there was no holding him back from the canvas."

Rama's artistic output was regularly on display at the zoo and was even exhibited at the famous Mark Woolley Gallery in Portland's Pearl District.

"To contemplate a canvas by the painter Rama," wrote the critic D.K. Holm in a Portland Mercury review of that show, "is to enter a non-figurative realm of blobs, flips, squiggles, splotches, marks, and splatter ... if you had to come up with antecedents, you'd think of Jackson Pollock, Joan Miró, or Paul Klee."

A memorial event for Rama is being planned, and zoo visitors can offer condolences or share favorite memories of him on the zoo's Facebook page.