Packy the male Asian elephant of Oregon Zoo, who made headlines during the Kennedy era as the first elephant born in captivity in the Western Hemisphere in 44 years, was humanely euthanized at the Zoo on 9 February. At nearly 55, he was the oldest male of his species in North America.
“He was my favourite – the most impressive animal I’ve ever known. It’s hard to think about coming in to work tomorrow and not seeing him. There will never be another like him,” said Bob Lee, who oversees the zoo elephant programme and worked with Packy for the past 17 years.
The decision to euthanize the elephant came following a lengthy search for alternative treatment options after test results last autumn indicated Packy was suffering from a drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis (TB). Elephant TB is a zoonotic disease, meaning that it can spread to humans. In fact seven of the Oregon Zoo staff contracted a latent form of tuberculosis in 2013 from three of the Zoo’s elephants.
“We’d run out of options for treating him,” said Dr. Tim Storms, the zoo’s lead veterinarian. “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. Anybody who’s had a sick or elderly pet knows how painful this can be, even if you know it’s the best thing for the animal.”
Tuberculosis (TB) is a respiratory disease that is spread through the air when a person – or in this case elephant – coughs, sneezes or otherwise spreads the pathogen, a bacteria. TB is a well-known disease and cause of death in elephants. The pathogen causing TB, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, is even implicated in the extinction of the American mastodon. The first zoo elephant death which reportedly was infected by TB was an Asian elephant at London Zoo in 1875. But African elephants can suffer from TB too, as it was first reported in 1962. Both the human form (Mycobacterium tuberculosis) and the bovine form (Mycobacterium bovis) can cause infection and disease in elephants. The avian form (Mycobacterium avium) is found in elephants but doesn’t cause disease.
In 1983 a circus elephant in North America was diagnosed with TB. Though nobody recognised it at the time, this report predicted a problem for captive elephants in North America and Europe that only would show more than a decade later. In 1996 TB re-emerged in elephants in the U.S. with the death of again two circus elephants. But more significant was the diagnosis of 5 new elephants with TB at 4 other facilities. And perhaps even more important, TB in elephants proved to be a zoonosis in 1997. Zoonotic transmission of TB from elephants to humans working in close proximity was described in the late 1990s. Obviously TB in captive elephant herds was an issue to be addressed seriously. So, the first guidelines for the control of TB in zoo elephants were produced in 1998.
In North America, approximately 5% of the captive Asian elephants are infected with M. tuberculosis, based on positive cultures of trunk washing samples or necropsy results. However, not only elephants in the USA are susceptible to TB. Until 2008 seven elephant TB cases have been reported in Europe, while 59 of 387 captive elephants had TB in four states of southern India.
TB in captive elephants is a re-emerging zoonotic disease. A zoonosis is an infection ‘shared in nature by man and animals’ according the definition of the World Health Organisation. Basically a disease is considered a zoonosis when the infection is transferred from animal to human, and as a reverse zoonosis when the infection is transferred from human to animal.
“This is a tremendous loss for the entire community,” said Dr. Don Moore, zoo director. “Packy was one of the most famous animals in the world, but to the people who live here, the people who grew up with him, he was family.”
Packy was born shortly before 6 a.m. on April 14, 1962, earning international attention, including an 11-page feature in Life magazine. He would become one of the best-known animals in the world – inspiring books, records, Rose Parade floats – and much of what we now know about elephant care can be traced back to him. His birth, and those that followed over the next 20 years in Portland, helped scientists better understand Asian elephants and ushered in a new era in the species’ care and welfare.
“These were completely uncharted waters,” Lee said. “Before Packy arrived in 1962, just one elephant had been born in any North American zoo – that one was born almost 100 years ago and only lived a for few weeks.”
In the late 1950s, the zoo’s first veterinarian, Matthew Maberry, was part of a team working to design facilities that provided elephants with much more freedom than was common in zoos at the time. These facilities, built in 1960, allowed for normal social interactions and natural breeding among the elephants, which led to a string of successful pregnancies and births over the next two decades. From the time of Packy’s birth in 1962 to his daughter Shine’s birth in 1982, more than 75 percent of the Asian elephants born in North America – 21 out of 27 – were born in Portland.
Packy’s spirit is said to live on in the personality of his daughter Shine, as well as in the zoo’s state-of-the-art Elephant Lands habitat, the design of which he helped inspire.
“Packy’s birth started it all,” Lee said. “The focus on elephant welfare, the knowledge about elephants. If you think about the time when he was born, it’s mind-boggling – Kennedy was president, the Beatles hadn’t made any records yet, cigarettes didn’t have warnings from the Surgeon General. We’ve learned so much about elephants since then, and it never could have happened without Packy.”
The Oregon Zoo is recognized worldwide for its Asian elephant programme, which has spanned more than 60 years. Considered highly endangered in their range countries, Asian elephants are threatened by habitat loss, conflict with humans and disease. It is estimated that just 40,000 to 50,000 elephants remain in fragmented populations from India to Borneo. The zoo supports a broad range of efforts to help wild elephants, and has established a $1 million endowment fund supporting Asian elephant conservation.
(Source: Oregon Zoo news release, 09.02.2017)