Packy's fight for life: 'Meeting emotion with emotion'
This story has been updated.
It took slightly more than an hour for Packy to die.
The Oregon Zoo's beloved 54-year-old Asian Elephant was heavily sedated and died quietly 64 minutes after the start of what zoo officials called a prolonged but not uncomfortable act of euthanasia.
Packy was pronounced dead at 5:26 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 9, weeks after discussions inside the zoo and Metro (the regional government that oversees the zoo) about his fate. The elephant's death was mourned by his keepers and zoo staff as a necessary result of drug-resistant tuberculosis that caused him to lose weight in his last few days and require pounds of ibuprofen to quell symptoms.
Zoo officials were keenly aware of the public relations challenge they faced explaining Packy's death, according to nearly 200 pages of emails and medical records released as part of a public records request. They also faced a backlash from Free the Oregon Zoo Elephants, a vocal group that wanted the zoo's elephants moved to a sanctuary where they could roam and live like elephants in the wild.
Zoo staff was coached on talking points to answer the public and news media questions after the elephant's euthanasia. They were confronted with internal dissent from elephant keepers who alerted the public about the decision to put Packy down.
"Following is a glimmer of the language of critics: Kill. Profit. Value his life. Spare his life," wrote Zoo Director Don Moore in a Jan. 29 email to Metro public relations staff. "We need to publicly validate how difficult this decision is, how reluctantly we do it, and why we exist: love for animals in our care, animal welfare first.
"We will, I know. We need to all be prepared to meet emotion with emotion."
'Never be another like him'
Zoo officials announced Packy's death about mid-morning Feb. 9. Packy, the first Asian elephant born in the Western Hemisphere in 44 years, was one the oldest male of his species in North America. He stood about 10-foot-6 at his shoulder.
"We loved Packy so much," said Bob Lee, who oversees the zoo elephant program and worked with Packy for the past 17 years. "There will never be another like him."
According to medical records, Packy died peacefully, lying on a large pile of sand. Up until that point, however, Packy had a number of ailments, including broken digits on both of his front legs, "nuclear sclerosis" in both eyes (similar to human cataracts) and scoliosis of his tail.
Packy's treatment included twice daily doses of 29,600 mg (37 tablets) of ibuprofen. His weight fluctuated during the last weeks of his life. On Jan. 30, zoo staff noted that Packy had gained 10 pounds in the past week, weighing in at 12,720 pounds. On Feb. 6, three days before he died, Packy's weight dropped 180 pounds to 12,540, according to staff daily reports.
(He could still eat quite a bit, however. In a Jan. 2 medical report, zoo veterinarian Kelly Flaminio wrote that Packy had found and eaten an entire bag of carrots that afternoon — plastic and all — and zoo staff were monitoring his bowel movements to make sure the bag passed without a problem.)
Born April 14, 1962, to fanfare and media attention, Packy spent most of his life in the zoo's elephant 1959-era habitat and barn. In 2008, voters approved a Metro bond to fund a $57 million Elephants Lands reconstruction and expansion, giving the herd about 6 acres to roam.
Since his TB was discovered in June 2013, Packy had been living mostly in isolation in a 3,200-square-foot area that included 1,600 square feet of indoor space and an equal amount of outdoor space.
Packy was buried in a 10-foot-deep grave on Metro-owned property in Clackamas County. He was buried in the same area where other zoo animals who died in 2015 were laid to rest, including Tusko, an Asian elephant that was euthanized that year.
Zoo officials said in a Feb. 9 press release that the decision to euthanize came following "a lengthy search for alternative treatment options' after Packy's TB tests showed that treatment was having no effect.
"We'd run out of options for treating him," said Dr. Tim Storms, the zoo's lead veterinarian.
In December, zoo staff announced that they had suspended tuberculosis treatment and were talking with experts as they considered what to do next for the aging elephant. Tests in September indicated that Packy's TB was not responding to treatment. Storms called the test results "disappointing."
Packy wasn't the first Oregon Zoo elephant with TB to be euthanized. In late December 2015, zoo staff put down 45-year-old Tusko. who had been treated for TB and rejoined the elephant herd about six months before he died. Zoo officials eventually euthanized him because of a debilitating leg injury, not because of his TB.
Team Packy's page
In late November, a 'Team Packy' page popped up on Facebook, providing information about the zoo's medical treatment plans for the aging elephant. The page, created in part by elephant keeper Pam Starkey, questioned the treatment decisions and advocated for Packy's life.
When the Facebook page alerted people to the possibility that Packy could be euthanized, it touched off a storm of emails and criticism from groups in Portland and around the country.
"Truth be told, the page was only started when it became apparent that my options to save Packy were minimal at best," Starkey wrote in a Feb. 7 email to Metro councilors. "Frankly I was hearing through rumor and innuendo that plans were already set in motion and the only alternative to him being put down were to do the unthinkable, go public. While not my preferred choice, I do not regret doing as I have done. Packy is very important to the staff, zoo and public and I do not regret the decision to do so."
Starkey unsuccessfully urged Metro's Council to stop the euthanasia to avoid, among other things, a public relations headache. "You know as well as I if you don't and this information comes out after Packy's death, no one will benefit," she wrote. "Not the zoo or Metro. And frankly for Packy this decision is final. You can't bring him back."
In a Jan. 28 email, Courtney Scott, a founder of Free the Oregon Zoo Elephants, asked Metro officials to explain why Packy had to be euthanized. "Yes, the community is concerned about Packy, and we deserve to know the truth and all the facts that relate to his health," Scott wrote. "The Oregon Zoo is a publicly funded entity, so Packy belongs to all of us. Since he has so often been used as an example of how wonderful the zoo's breeding program is, the zoo should now show how much they value Packy and spare his life."
Free the Oregon Zoo Elephants hosts weekly protests outside the zoo. On Feb. 23, Scott handed the Metro Council a Care2 petition with 193,342 signatures (3,442 from Oregon) asking that the zoo release Chendra, a Borneo pygmy elephant, to a sanctuary. The national group In Defense of Animals called Packy's death "murder."
In a string of emails between Jan. 26 and Feb. 3, Bala Seshasayee, a Hillsboro volunteer with Free the Oregon Zoo Elephants, and Moore sparred about Packy's well-being and whether euthanasia was a possibility. In response to Seshasayee's questions, Moore wrote that "Packy is family" to the zoo keepers who had determined the TB was hurting his quality of life.
"For any sick animal with no hope of recovering, euthanasia is something we would consider, and, yes, that is something we must think about with Packy," Moore wrote on Feb. 3. "Maybe you've been through this before with a pet. I have, and I still agonize over those decisions.
"We are facing a problem with seemingly no good answers. Please know that, for his caregivers here at the Oregon Zoo, Packy is family. He is a friend they will not be able to replace ever — and right now we all are going through one of the hardest times in our lives."
Seshasayee's response: "It's disappointing when you compare a captive wild animal to a pet. You're supposed to be an educational organization focused on conservation science — it doesn't matter that the handlers treat elephants as family. And it's quite hypocritical for the zoo to be taking this stance when the zoo terms animal welfare people as too anthropomorphic when they ask for better treatment."
Carry on his legacy
About 24 hours before Packy was euthanized, Moore sent a confidential email to zoo staff telling them of the decision. "There are no words to adequately describe how painful this loss will be for our zoo family and our community," Moore wrote. "It will be especially difficult for Packy's caregivers and the staff and volunteers who knew him so well."
After Packy's death on Feb. 9, Metro and zoo staff distributed about two dozen talking points, highlighting the elephant's legacy and the future of the elephant herd. The information provided staff with readymade responses to questions from the public and the media.
Among the talking points: "Packy leaves a legacy of animal welfare and conservation science, as well as decades of memories for Oregonians. With the long history of support from this community, we will carry on his legacy as we continue our work on Asian elephant conservation"; "The Oregon Zoo has been caring for Packy his entire life and his care team knows what is best for him"; "Experts consulted indicate there are no other facilities that have as much experience with TB safety protocols and treatment as the Oregon Zoo"; and, "We worked diligently to find a treatment option for Packy that would allow him to maintain his quality of life."
CORRECTION March 15, 2017: A version of this story incorrectly characterized circumstances surrounding Tusko's euthanasia. Tusko had been treated for TB, but his treatment was ended when zoo vets determined that euthanasia was the only humane option because of his serious leg injury.
Kevin L. Harden is digital media editor for Pamplin Media Group. 503-546-5167. email:
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