By almost any measure, Packy is majestic. Standing 10 and a half feet at the shoulder, he is thought to be the tallest Asian elephant in North America, and he cuts a lithe figure even at six tons. He is also the oldest male of his species on this continent — born in Portland more than 53 years ago, at a time when it was extremely rare for elephants to be born in zoos at all, and rarer still for those that were born to survive.
Watching this elder statesman enjoy a sunny morning in the Oregon Zoo’s back elephant yard this month, elephant curator Bob Lee couldn’t help noting the symbolism of Packy’s position. With work on the expansive new Elephant Lands project more than 85 percent complete, Packy 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.
“He is the reason for all of this,” said Lee, who has worked with Packy for more than 15 years. “He is the connection between the old and the new. Packy was the first elephant born here back in 1962, and we designed this new habitat 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.”
Construction of Elephant Lands — the fourth of eight major projects funded by a community-supported zoo bond measure in 2008 — will reach a major turning point this month with the completion of the new indoor facility and the north meadow portion of the habitat. Although zoo visitors won’t get a good look at the entire habitat until later this year, aerial photos provide a stunning preview of what Elephant Lands will look like: a sweeping expanse that extends around the eastern edge of the zoo, from south of the concert lawn north into the area formerly housing Elk Meadow.
“People will be amazed by the scope of this project,” said Jim Mitchell, zoo construction manager. “Some visitors got a sneak peek at the northern portion of the habitat at Elephantastic Saturday, but most of the work — especially construction of the indoor portion — has been taking place behind the scenes.”
Compared to the new indoor structure — which covers 32,000 square feet, with a roof reaching up to 43 feet at its highest point — even the mighty Packy looks tiny. You might think a building that size would be hard to miss on zoo grounds, but unless you’re in a hardhat area it’s almost impossible to see right now, according to Mitchell.
“Seen from above, the Forest Hall portion of the indoor habitat is roughly the same size and shape as the concert lawn,” Mitchell said. “It’s like looking at twin baseball fields, one outdoors and one indoors.”
Additional photos taken from inside Forest Hall offer a glimpse of what’s to come — a vast, sunlit arena housing one of the largest, most innovative indoor elephant spaces in the country. With natural light streaming in through large overhead skylights, the zoo’s elephant family will move across a lush, forested backdrop seen through a 1,820-square-foot glass curtain wall.
When Packy and the others move into these new digs next month, construction crews will begin demolition of the old barn, considered a state-of-the-art for 1960 — a building that for the past 50-plus years served as North America’s most active pachyderm nursery, but will soon linger only as a memory, a legendary chapter in the zoo’s history.
In the late 1950s, the zoo’s first vet, Matthew Maberry, was part of a team working to design new facilities that provided elephants with much more freedom than was common in zoos at the time. These facilities, built in 1960, allowed for normal social interactions and natural breeding among the elephants. Elephants were not chained indoors overnight as they commonly were in other zoos at the time. The unprecedented freedom led to an extraordinary string of successful pregnancies and births.
How extraordinary? For the first eight decades of the 20th century, right up through 1980, just 28 Asian elephants were born anywhere in North America. Nineteen of those — more than two-thirds — were born in Portland. Of the nine born elsewhere during this time, the infant mortality rate was 100 percent: From 1900 to 1980, not a single Asian elephant born anywhere on the continent — except for Portland — survived to one year of age. It is easy to understand how Portland’s zoo gained a reputation as “the elephant zoo.”
“These were completely uncharted waters,” Lee said. “Before Packy arrived in 1962, just one elephant had been born in any North American zoo — that was in 1918, and he lived for just a few weeks.”
For three months before Packy’s birth, the elephant barn buzzed with reporters, looking like extras from an early 1960s film — playing poker, smoking, sleeping on hay and waiting. By the time Packy’s mother, Belle, went into labor, many reporters had given up. Belle’s pregnancy delivered Packy to us, of course. It also taught the wildlife community that an Asian elephant’s gestation lasts around 22 months.
In the 20 years following Packy’s birth, the old barn yielded new discoveries with each elephant birth —the elephant estrous cycle, the age at which males reach sexual maturity, etc.— but there were still surprises along the way. On one occasion, keepers arrived to find a wobbly calf born the night before.
“If you look back at those early years — the 1960s and ’70s and even into the ’80s — it’s not all pretty,” Lee said. “There was inbreeding, some elephants were sent away to circuses. The things that are obvious to us as animal-care professionals today were unknown to — or rather first learned by — the people who worked here 35 or 40 years ago. It’s hard to look back some of that history, knowing what we do now. It’s tempting to say, ‘You should have known better’ or ‘You should have done things this way.’ But what we need to realize is the folks who were here back then had literally no experience to draw from. If you think about the time when Packy was born, it’s mind-boggling — Kennedy was president, the Beatles hadn’t made any records yet, cigarettes didn’t have warnings from the Surgeon General. It was a different era. They were writing the book on elephants as they went.”
In the 1970s and ’80s, zoos began to transform, evolving from the menageries of old into the hubs for conservation and education we see today. Significant milestones influencing the mission of zoos included the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, and the process of accreditation by what is now the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. In 1974, the Oregon Zoo became just the second zoo in the country to earn AZA accreditation. AZA’s Species Survival Plan program was established in 1981, and the SSP for Asian elephants came several years later. This all transpired during an era when people were learning more and more about elephants.
One important lesson had to do with elephants’ feet. Older exhibits, particularly those constructed in the 1950s and ’60s, featured a lot of concrete, which is easy to clean and disinfect but can lead to foot problems in elephants. The Oregon Zoo pioneered the installation of elephant-friendly surfaces in the early 1990s and 2000s, retrofitting its old facilities with natural substrates outdoors and two-inch-thick rubber flooring inside.
In 1998, the Oregon Zoo hosted the first professional conference on elephant foot-care practices, convening veterinarians and elephant experts from around the world. Conclusions and recommendations from this conference were compiled in "The Elephant’s Foot", which now serves as a manual for zoos across the country. More than 40 of the foremost authorities on elephants and their feet — including Oregon Zoo veterinarian Mitch Finnegan and vet technician Margot Monti — contributed chapters on topics ranging from foot anatomy to treating ailments to nutrition, maintenance and record-keeping.
Elephant Lands has taken it a step further, so to speak, with four to five feet of soft, specially selected “elephant sand” spread throughout the entire habitat, including indoor areas.
Another lesson — one that seems obvious today — is that elephants thrive when they live in family herds. Under natural conditions, female elephants spend their entire lives together. Elephants in herds spend a surprising amount of time in physical contact with each other. They work together, foraging for food and raising young.
“Elephants are so family-oriented,” Lee said. “We know that now. Belonging to a multigenerational matriarchal herd and participating in the raising of young — with male elephants coming in and out of the herd at different times — stimulates and motivates each member of the herd physically, emotionally and psychologically.”
Looking back at the zoo’s long history with elephants, Lee feels proud to work for an organization that has been so crucial to developing the science behind today’s elephant welfare practices.
“We’ve had successes and failures over the years,” Lee said. “And the great thing is that we have talked openly about both. We’ve shared all our experiences with other zoos and researchers, both the things we did well and the things we didn’t. It’s been so gratifying to be able to put all that collective knowledge into Elephant Lands, and now to watch it transform from designs on paper and artists’ renderings into actual physical reality.”
Like the impressive zoo new indoor facility at Elephant Lands, Packy himself has stayed behind the scenes recently as well. Though he’s seen daily by keepers and construction crews, public viewing opportunities have been complicated for the past couple of years, both by the work on Elephant Lands and Packy’s TB diagnosis.
Lee hopes seeing the new indoor facility go up before his eyes will help embolden Packy to walk inside soon after it opens it doors to elephants next month. The 53-year-old pachyderm is notoriously set in his ways and reluctant to try anything new. He was the only member of the elephant family not to explore the Encounter Habitat, Lee says, though that wasn’t for a lack of opportunity.
“We tried enticing him out the back of the old barn with bananas and some of his other favorite treats, but he only ventured out a couple of steps,” Lee said. “That’s just his nature. Other elephants, like Tusko and Samudra, are much more adventurous and love to explore new things, but Packy thrives on the familiar.”