By Taylor Bailey ::
On April 14, 1962, ‘Packy’ the elephant was born at the Portland Zoological Gardens. He was the first elephant born in the United States in 44 years, and that was a big deal. American animal dealers and zoos had struggled to get Asian elephants to breed in captivity, and even if the mother carried to term–which takes nearly two years–infants often died young or during birth.
Packy’s birth came nearly a half century after the death of ‘Prince Utah,’ the last elephant born in captivity in North America. Prince Utah, who was born in April 1918, was the offspring of ‘Princess Alice,’ an Asian elephant at the Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City. Price Utah died only 11 months after his birth from heart problems. Princess Alice had issues rearing her earlier calves, having rejected three of them by attempting to stomp them to death. So when it became apparent to Portland Zoo staff that their 10 year old female ‘Belle’ was pregnant, they were decidedly cautious about how successful her offspring might be.
Belle came to Portland from Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, along with her mate Thorglaw, under a sharing agreement with the animal dealer Morgan Berry. Zookeepers at the Woodland Park Zoo had no idea that Belle was pregnant, because at the time scientists did not know that elephant gestation periods lasted 22 months. The Seattle zoo probably wouldn’t have transferred the pair to Portland if they knew of Belle’s pregnancy, because the birth of a baby elephant would have been a special event that would have increased zoo attendance.
Instead, the Portland Zoological Gardens won the attention visitors and the press when Belle gave birth. Packy was publicly displayed only 6 hours after his birth at 5:58 AM on Saturday, April 14, 1962. The Lloyd Center raised two flags—one pink and one blue—to signal the birth of Belle’s baby, whose sex had not yet been released to the press. Crowds rushed to to zoo to catch a glimpse of the infant the Oregonian had named ‘Fuzzy-Face.’
“He stands about three feet tall, is the color of mud and is covered with long fuzz. He has a head of black hair, a miniature moustache and a beard… He is altogether ridiculous,” the paper said, “but he is obviously the apple of his mother’s eye.” 1 Attendance at the zoo topped one million that year. The name ‘Packy’ came from Gresham resident Wayne W. French, who won a KPOJ radio naming contest.
Packy’s birthday celebration, which has been held every year since his birth, continues to fire up anti-captivity activists such as the Free the Oregon Zoo Elephants group, that is critical of Metro’s 2016 decision to drop plans for an off-site elephant sanctuary. The sanctuary was originally part of the bond measure that Portlanders approved in 2008, dependent on a feasibility study. The zoo argues that they have improved the conditions for their elephants by constructing the six-acre ‘Elephant Lands’ exhibit, which gives the animals more room to roam. As for Packy—who has been under quarantine since being diagnosed with tuberculosis in December 2013—he’ll have to wait until he no longer tests positive for the disease before he can enjoy the company of other elephants again.
[UPDATE: On February 9, 2017, Oregon Zoo veterinarians euthanized Packy after treatments for recurrent tuberculosis proved unsuccessful. Packy’s death occurred after the creation of this podcast. A memorial tribute on Packy’s legacy is available at the Oregon Zoo.]
Want to Learn More? Check Out:
- Dick Blau and Nigel Rothfels, Elephant House (Penn State University Press, 2015)
- Susan Nance, Entertaining Elephants: Animal Agency and the Business of the American Circus (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013)
- Matthew Maberry, Packy and Me: The Incredible Tale of Doc Maberry and the Baby Elephant Who Made History (Arnica Publishing, 2011)
- Jessie McClendon, “Packy the Elephant,” Oregon Encyclopedia
Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Feasting on the Flowers”
Taylor Bailey, Project Manager
Tanya Monthey, fact checker and editor