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Packy keeps going as he battles tuberculosis

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Famous zoo elephant no longer responds to disease treatment


COURTESY: SARA HOTTMAN/OREGON ZOO - Asian elephant Packy, at 54 the oldest male of his species in North America, enjoys a swim at the Oregon Zoo earlier this fall.Packy’s human family at the Oregon Zoo is concerned for the health of the legendary Asian elephant, the oldest living of his kind in North America.

The 54-year-old Packy has shown a recurrence of tuberculosis, and treatment has stopped working and it’s been suspended. Zoo officials are consulting with experts about what to do. Not to alarm anybody, but it’s an unknown situation.

“Every day with this guy is a blessing,” says Bob Lee, elephant curator who has cared for Packy for 16 years. “When somebody has TB and the (testing) culture is positive after this long of treatments, it’s absolutely concerning.

“He’s everything you imagine. He’s just a great elephant. I can’t imagine him not being there.”

Lee, one of a handful of zoo employees who have been around Packy for several years, says he has become part of his family. “That’s how we describe it,” says Lee, a father of two. “Packy’s a member of the family. My son Isaac, I’ve probably spent more time with Packy than I have with him, unfortunately for him. Weekends, birthdays, Christmas day, snow days, holidays — people here at the zoo are taking care of elephants and animals. It’s very personal to us.”

His keepers hoped to get Packy to the 12-month mark of treatment, and start seeing real hope.

“It was quite a blow to get that (monthly trunk-wash) culture back positive,” Lee says. “Not many places have had to go through this before. What’s in the best interest of Packy?”

The Oregon Zoo has been a pioneer in TB research. “We just don’t have all the answers,” Lee says. Tuberculosis in elephants is tough to track; any illness in elephants is tough to track. Like many animals, elephants hide illness, Lee says.

Packy has explored the zoo’s Elephants Lands exhibit. He turned 54 in April. He enjoyed another Portland summer, although he, like all elephants, really enjoy the misty rain and 50-degree temperatures and not the heat. He doesn’t show any indications of being sick.

“Day to day he doesn’t appear to be suffering,” Lee says. “He moves, his mind’s active, he’s utilizing the environment, interacting, eating well, his digestive system seems to be working. You can’t tell what’s going on inside.”

Packy made history in 1962 as the first Asian elephant to be born in the Western hemisphere in 44 years. He made the pages of Life magazine. Visitors came from around the world. The zoo annually celebrates his birthday.

He’s now 54, and he’s still a treasure, Lee says.

“He’s a geriatric elephant for sure,” he adds. “In Africa, their average life span is 33 years now because of poaching.

“For his age, he’s definitely slowing down. We’ve seen some muscle loss, just as with us when we age, and arthritis has creeped in.”