What Packy taught us (Opinion)

By Don Moore This past week has been an especially sad one for the Oregon Zoo. On Thursday, we said goodbye to Asian elephant Packy, one of the zoo's oldest residents, and one of the best-known, most beloved animals in the world.  As a young conservation...

What Packy taught us (Opinion)

By Don Moore

This past week has been an especially sad one for the Oregon Zoo. On Thursday, we said goodbye to Asian elephant Packy, one of the zoo's oldest residents, and one of the best-known, most beloved animals in the world. 

As a young conservation biologist attending grad school at Syracuse in the early 1980s -- long before I returned to Portland to be zoo director -- I traveled across the country one summer, visiting family in the Northwest but also intent on seeing Portland's zoo and meeting the legendary elephant. He was majestic, standing 10-foot-6 at the shoulder with a bearing I can only describe as regal. The intelligence in his eyes was startling. I had never seen anything like him.

Nearly everyone in the Portland area knows Packy, of course -- he inspired books, songs, and parade floats. For years, a giant mural of his profile graced the old Skidmore Fountain Building at the west end of the Burnside Bridge. And, with his likeness embellishing our logo, Packy was literally the face of the Oregon Zoo. But apart from his celebrity, or perhaps because of it, Packy's most important legacy stretches far beyond our region. 

When the zoo moved to its current Washington Park location in the late 1950s, Dr. Matthew Maberry, our first veterinarian, helped design facilities that gave elephants much more freedom than was common for zoos of that time. That change encouraged normal social interactions and natural breeding among the elephants, which led to something of a modern miracle: Packy, the first elephant born in North America since 1918. 

The birth was so unprecedented that until Packy hit the ground (shortly before 6 a.m. on April 14, 1962), no one knew that an Asian elephant's gestation period is 20 to 22 months. That was the first thing Packy taught us -- and each year brought more knowledge, profoundly improving our understanding of elephants. Scientist Katy Payne, for example, visiting Portland's elephant family, found that elephants communicate using sounds below the range of human hearing, a discovery that has been applied in reducing human-elephant conflict in Asia. 

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And this points to what I believe will be Packy's true legacy. Asian elephants are at a crossroads now, critically endangered in their native range and under serious threat of extinction. As few as 40,000 remain, and their range directly coincides with some of the most densely populated human areas on earth. With habitat vanishing at an alarming rate, what we have traditionally thought of as "the wild" scarcely exists. If we don't help them, Asian elephants could be erased from the earth by the next century.

Packy was one of the most famous animals in the world -- larger than life and a legend in his own time -- but to the people of Oregon who grew up with him, or watched him grow up, he was family. He inspired millions of visitors over a lifetime that lasted nearly 55 years. He taught us to care deeply about elephants, and moved us to help them. As we look ahead to the future of the Oregon Zoo -- and our future on this planet -- we will never forget Packy, the elephant who inspired generations of budding conservationists and taught us so much.

Don Moore, Ph.D., is director of the Oregon Zoo.

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