Oregon elephant's first friends

‘Packy and Pals’ creator recalls excitement over big zoo birth

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

Published:

 

IF YOU GO

What: Packy the elephant’s 50th birthday party.

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday, April 14 (gates are open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.)

Where: Oregon Zoo, 4001 S.W. Canyon Road, Portland.

How much: Ages 12 to 64, $10.50; 65 and older, $9; 3 to 11, $7.50. (Visitors born on April 14, 1962, get free admission for themselves and a guest and those born in 1962 or on any April 14 get in for half-price, with government-issued ID.)

DID YOU KNOW?

• Packy is the oldest and tallest (10 feet 6 inches) male Asian elephant in North America; he weighs 12,500 pounds.

• The zoo’s attendance hit 1 million for the first time in 1962, a record that wasn’t broken until 1989.

Source: http://www.oregonzoo.org/

Packy the elephant made quite an impact in 1962.

“It was amazing how Packy being born captured the imagination of Portland,” Vancouver artist Jim Shinn said.

It certainly put Shinn’s imagination to work as a newspaper cartoonist.

Now the Oregon Zoo is getting ready to celebrate Packy’s 50th birthday, marking a milestone. When Belle gave birth on April 14, 1962, Packy was the first elephant born in the Western Hemisphere in 44 years.

Packy’s arrival was even more notable than that, according to Oregon Zoo officials. Since the first pachyderm was shipped to the United States in 1796, only nine elephants had been born in North America -- and most had died as infants.

When the zoo announced that Belle was pregnant, the city threw one heck of a baby shower. Shinn was a big part of it as an artist at the Portland Reporter, a paper started by journalists during a strike against The Oregonian.

“A month before Packy was born, the paper wanted to know if I could do a countdown cartoon each day,” Shinn said. “Apparently it was so popular that after Packy was born, they wanted me to continue it. I renamed it ‘Packy and his Pals.’”

The “pals” included the zookeeper and other animals -- including the tuckered-out stork that delivered the baby elephant.

For about three years, Shinn started his day thinking about Packy.

“I’d go into work at about 6 a.m., and I’d have to come up with an idea for the day,” Shinn said. “I’d always do a lot of thinking about gag ideas. Sometimes I’d incorporate current events -- the Rose Festival, or astronauts.”

It was just a one-column panel, but it always ran on the front page, so it had great visibility.

“It was a fun thing to do every day, and people seemed to really like it,” Shinn said.

Eventually, the Portland Reporter folded.

“The timing was perfect. I went to work for The Columbian,” Shinn said.

He retired in 1995 after 30 years as The Columbian’s staff artist.

While “Packy and his Pals” was a nice part of Shinn’s artistic career, the cartoon was not the elephant’s only impact on Shinn.

Shinn’s collection of newspapers and clippings includes a 1962 photograph of the artist visiting the zoo right after Packy’s birth.

The photo shows Shinn hunkering down for a face-to-trunk meeting with Packy. At some point, the 250-pound elephant shifted his weight and nudged Shinn.

“I lost my balance,” Shinn said. “He knocked me right on my can.”

Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558; http://www.twitter.com/col_history;tom.vogt@columbian.com.