During his lifetime, Packy was quite the celebrity. Indeed, at the age of 54, he became the oldest elephant in the United States. But, in 2017, he was being talked about for all the wrong reasons: campaigners claimed he’d been murdered.
The Asian elephant was born at Portland Zoo on April 14, 1962. And, at the time, the newborn was the subject of international media attention. Why? Because for the first time in 44 years, an elephant had been successfully bred in the Western Hemisphere.
As part of the media storm surrounding the zoo’s new arrival, a local radio station ran a naming competition. Furthermore, LIFE magazine ran an 11-page spread dedicated to the elephant. Amazingly, more than one million people had flocked to Portland to see Packy before he’d even turned one.
So, it’s fair to say that Packy was somewhat of a celebrity in the animal world. Indeed, his story even inspired books and even songs. Moreover, his birth helped scientists learn about Asian elephants, subsequently changing the way we treat the animals today.
“Packy’s birth started it all,” long-term Oregon Zoo employee Bob Lee said in a statement in February 2017. “The focus on elephant welfare, the knowledge about elephants. If you think about the time when he 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,” he continued. “We’ve learned so much about elephants since then, and it never could have happened without Packy.”
In 2017, at the grand old age of 54, Packy was North America’s oldest Asian elephant bull. But, in recent years, he hadn’t been well. Vets had diagnosed Packy with tuberculosis (TB) in 2013 and recently the zoo reported that his treatment was failing.
TB is a common ailment in elephants and the zoo regularly tests its herd for the disease. According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 5 percent of captive elephants in North America have the illness. Signs of the highly contagious disease include weight loss, weakness and coughing.
In 2015 vets at Oregon Zoo euthanized two elephants, one of which was actually Packy’s son, Rama. Both animals were suffering with TB. The controversial decision sparked the formation of a “Team Packy” campaign. An anonymous zoo employee founded a Facebook page over fears Packy would meet the same fate.
“It appears zoo management and Metro [local government] are about to make the decision to put Packy down and this decision is not based on science, safety or Packy’s best interest,” read a post on the page in December 2016. “It’s a risk-based decision made by politicians, attorneys and other officials who fear the future repercussions of keeping him alive.”
Furthermore, in another post, a Team Packy spokesperson claimed that the elephant was showing no signs of his illness. “Packy has never shown any signs or symptoms of the TB infection,” read the statement from January 2017. “He’s showing no signs of pain or discomfort. He is active, playful and engaged with keeper staff every day.”
However, despite the group’s efforts, the zoo euthanized Packy in February 2017. The decision came after vets discovered his TB had developed drug resistance. According to a zoo spokesperson, this meant the elephant’s best option was euthanasia.
“We’d run out of options for treating him,” vet Dr. Tim Storms said in a statement. “The remaining treatments involved side effects that would have been very hard on Packy, with no guarantee of success, plus a risk of creating further resistance. None of us felt it would be right to do that. But without treatment, his TB would have continued to get worse.”
“The worst has happened,” a Team Packy Facebook post said in response to the news. “We want to thank you all for your help and support in trying to stop this from happening, we can at least live with ourselves knowing that we did everything we could to try to change the minds of the Director and Assistant Director in this matter.”
However, the devastating news sparked a backlash within some animal conservation circles. Toni Frohoff, from the animal rights organization In Defense of Animals, even described Packy’s death as “murder.” The elephant biologist claimed that the zoo put Packy down as he was no longer profitable.
“If the zoo is going to use the term euthanasia, then I call on them to immediately make public the clinical veterinary documents that support that this was truly to alleviate suffering as the only possibility,” she told The Dodo. “I am challenging them.”
Oregon Zoo did not comment on Frohoff’s accusations. However, members of staff did express their sadness via a statement on the zoo’s website. “We loved Packy so much,” said Lee. “He was my favorite, the most impressive animal I’ve ever known. It’s hard to think about coming in to work tomorrow and not seeing him. There will never be another like him.”
Meanwhile, zoo director Dr. Don Moore said, “This is a tremendous loss for the entire community. Packy was one of the most famous animals in the world, but to the people who live here, the people who grew up with him, he was family.”
The wider community also mourned Packy’s death. A video remembering the elephant’s astonishing life gained 15,000 likes on Oregon Zoo’s Facebook page. “You were an amazing animal. Our pride and joy for Oregon and the country. You brought such regal elegance. You will be so missed dear friend,” read one of the moving comments.
So, although Packy’s life ended on a controversial note, he will be remembered for teaching the world about his beautiful species. His legacy not only lives on in his daughter Shine, but in the years of research he provided scientists. He may be gone, but he certainly won’t be forgotten.