AboutZoos, Since 2008


Asian ele­phant Packy, who’s birth was a land­mark for North Amer­i­can zoos, euthanized!

pub­lished 12 Feb­ru­ary 2017 | mod­i­fied 12 Feb­ru­ary 2017

Oregon zoo elephant PackyPacky 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.”

Ele­phant tuber­cu­lo­sis
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’s his­tory
Elephant Packy as calfEle­phant Packy as calf at Ore­gon Zoo.
Image credit: Ore­gon Zoo.
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)

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