Packy's Story

Packy is the Oregon Zoo elephant featured prominently in this documentary

On April 14, 1962,the birth of the first elephant born in the Western Hemisphere in 44 years created a frenzy of excitement and made headlines everywhere. He weighed in at 225 pounds and immediately captured the hearts of visitors from around the nation and the world. His mother Belle and father Thonglaw were both captured in south Asia. At the young age of 8, Belle became pregnant and two years later the baby who would be named Packy took his first steps. The new baby elephant brought in scores of visitors, dramatically increasing ticket sales. Packy toys, books and clothes became a fad and sold like hot cakes.

Later, when Packy matured he started entering cycles of musth, which is a periodic condition in bull elephants, characterized by highly aggressive behavior and accompanied by a large rise in reproductive hormones. He was bred with his sisters at first and Packy sired 7 calves, only one is still alive alive, Shine, the matriarch lives at the Oregon Zoo. Rama, his son, was euthanized at age 31 in March of 2015 at the Oregon Zoo. Breeding at zoos is problematic by the zoos' own admission as half of the babies born are male, and zoos have a hard time managing males, due to their aggression during musth. and the fact that males have to be segregated from females, so more space and management is needed to control them. Packy showed aggression to Pet when they were put together as a breeding experiment. He also has repeatedly kicked on doors.

Every year, the zoo celebrates Packy's birthday with a big party that packs in tons of visitors—lines can go around the block. There's a special cake for Packy and elephant ears for the kids. Packy was given the key to the city on his 50th birthday and made an honorary Rosarian, a Portland group of distinguished citizens.

The rest of the year Packy can be found pacing behind the steel bars of the “viewing cage” or pacing in the front or back yards of his 1.2 acre habitat. When Packy bobs his head repeatedly, many visitors think he is “dancing”. However according to elephant experts, he is expressing intense emotional stress, which is called stereotypical behavior, endemic to elephants in captivity. In the wild, Packy would be spending time with other male elephants in a bachelor herd, returning to visit and mate with females in the matriarchal herd, foraging on trees and roots, and roaming freely on his own.

None of these activities is possible in a zoo, so the zoo attempts to simulate the wild by bringing in tree branches and other forage material for the elephants' “enrichment”. And the Oregon Zoo constructed a new 6.25 acre habitat, Elephant Lands, which was completed in late 2015. However when you subtract the visitor and staff areas, this space is actually a little over 4 acres for the elephants, and that 4 acres is subdivided into 1 and 2 acre habitats. Zoos don't always admit that space is the biggest problem for elephants, but nonetheless, some do expand the size of the habitats, even if that expansion is inadequate.

In 2013, Packy was the second elephant at the zoo to contract tuberculosis. The first was Rama, and the next was Tusko, who sired baby Lily who was born in 2012 to Rose-Tu, creating another big burst in ticket sales. Packy experienced serious side effects from the TB drugs, which is often the case with Asian elephants. His liver was compromised and he lost so much weight that he had been characterized as “emaciated” several times. It is also possible zoo staff were withholding food from him during musth, as that was the case with Hugo, who died in 2003. During Hugo's autopsy, it was found that he had zero body fat. Zoo personnel had withdrawn food to try to control his aggression.

On his 52nd birthday in 2014, Packy did not make an appearance. He was brought out on the following Monday so he could eat his cake and news cameras could catch the action. Packy has not made many appearances since then, and the zoo has made a statement that Packy is old and not doing well on his medications, so it sounded like perhaps the zoo was preparing the public for his demise.

Activists tried for 8 years to get Packy released to a sanctuary, where he could have lived out his days and healed from his TB in a warm dry climate. That future was never realized and Packy become the poster child for what is right about breeding in captivity according to the AZA (Association of Zoos & Aquariums) and the zoo, and everything that is wrong with breeding to elephant advocates.

On February 9, 2017, Packy was injected with a lethal drug, and after a long 30 minutes, he died. Controversy swirls around the decision to kill Packy. According to Packy's keeper the decision was “..not based on science, safety or Packy’s best interest. It is a risk based decision made by politicians, attorneys and other officials who fear the future repercussions of keeping him alive.”

The Zoo management said it is because Packy's health was deteriorating due to his active strain of TB. Free the Oregon Zoo Elephants, In Defense of Animals and several news media obtained medical records--which do not contain any explanation for the decision to put him down. The story continues to be investigated.