Portland lost one of its most beloved residents Thursday, as the Oregon Zoo announced it euthanized Packy, the 54-year-old elephant who captivated locals in the lead-up to his 1962 birth and in the decades since.
Packy was the oldest male of his species in North America. In 1962, he was the first elephant born in the Western Hemisphere in 44 years. Although he was born at the zoo, he was bred in Southwest Washington, according to Columbian files, as H. Morgan Berry raised zoo and circus animals on a 76-acre farm outside Woodland.
Throughout the course of his life, the 6-ton, 10-½-foot-tall bull Asian elephant inspired books, records and an 11-page spread in Life magazine. Locally, artist Jim Shinn was hired by the Portland Reporter to create daily cartoons leading up to the birth.
“It was like a big countdown,” Shinn said. “The TV stations were talking about it all the time: ‘She didn’t give birth to the elephant today’ day after day.”
Shinn’s cartoon was so popular he was asked to keep it up for the next three years or so, until the Reporter closed. He then joined The Columbian, where he worked for the next 30 years.
“The most fun time in my newspaper career was doing Packy,” Shinn said. “I got a little mail during that time from people who enjoyed the cartoon. It was one of those things they got used to seeing on Page 1 every day. I worked current events into the cartoon, so that kind of helped.”
Shinn said he would use “Packy and his Pals” — which also featured frequent guests, such as Packy’s mother, Belle, a zookeeper and other zoo animals — to discuss local and national news items, like the Rose Parade or animals being launched into space. Despite that, Packy stayed grounded on Earth.
“He’s too big for a space capsule,” Shinn said. “Even in a cartoon.”
But Packy wasn’t just a muse for artists. Veterinarians studied Packy to learn more about the life of elephants. Before his birth, veterinarians and zookeepers didn’t know how long an elephant’s gestation period was. Belle gave birth after 21 months of pregnancy a little before 6 a.m. on April 14, 1962.
“If you think about the time when he was born, it’s mind-boggling,” Bob Lee, who oversees the zoo’s elephant program, said in a 2015 news release from the zoo. “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.”
One such book was “Packy and Me” by zoo veterinarian Dr. Matthew Maberry, who published the book decades later to share the story of Belle’s pregnancy, Packy’s birth and the surrounding media frenzy.
Packy was an immediate hit, helping the zoo bring in more than 1 million visitors in 1962, the first time it eclipsed that number. He remained an attraction, albeit a controversial one in more recent years, as activist groups pleaded with the zoo to release him or at the very least, not kill him.
The zoo first detected tuberculosis in Packy in 2013 and started medicating him. Results from his monthly culture indicated active tuberculosis again in Packy in September, indicating the medication wasn’t working, and zoo officials suspended the tuberculosis treatment in December, according to a release from the zoo.
“We’d run out of options for treating him,” Dr. Tim Storms, the zoo’s lead veterinarian, said in a release from the zoo. “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. We consulted other experts — veterinarians and pharmacists — and a lot of people were involved in this decision, but that didn’t make it any easier.”
After the zoo sent out the announcement Thursday morning, many wished Packy tearful goodbyes online and sent well wishes to those who worked with Packy. Zoo officials said they’re planning a memorial celebration for Packy for later this month. In the meantime, Packy was treated to the traditional send off for Portland legends: a pastry with his picture on it at Voodoo Doughnut.