Packy laid to rest in elephant graveyard
Even in death, Packy is part of a herd.
When the Oregon Zoo's 54-year-old Asian elephant was euthanized early in the morning of Feb. 9, his large body was hauled more than an hour from the zoo to a natural area east of Portland overlooking the Sandy River. There, Packy was laid to rest in a 12-foot-deep unmarked grave near the resting places of three other Oregon Zoo elephants: Pet, who died in 2006; Rama, Packy's son, who died in March 2015; and Tusko, who died in December 2015.
It's an elephant graveyard of sorts, in heavily wooded Metro-owned property south of Corbett and east of the Sandy River in Clackamas County. It has more than 150 very secluded acres, with few neighbors or visitors. A swath cleared through the area is where in early February, under early morning darkness, Packy joined three other elephants in his straw-covered grave among the trees.
Getting to the remote site means leaving the rural area's paved roads and driving part of the way on gravel. A locked gate limits access to the area Metro has owned since the late 1990s.
Zoo officials were familiar with the burial routine. They followed guidelines laid down two years earlier by the state Department of Environmental Quality to prepare the grave and disinfect equipment and tools used in the burial.
A caravan of six vehicles — a dump truck, a box truck, a 4x4 truck, a passenger van and a couple of other passenger vehicles — made the early morning trek east to the gravesite.
Two years ago, zoo staff coordinated with Dr. Emilio E. DeBess, state public health veterinarian, to "establish biosafe animal handling protocols," according to a March 2015 letter from Metro attorney Gary Shepherd, when Rama, the 31-year-old Asian elephant, was euthanized. A Metro hydrologist's tests confirmed that the burial wouldn't affect the Sandy River, local water tables or wetlands. Plans were put in place to prevent the spread of tuberculosis from the elephant body using disinfectants and hazardous waste disposal procedures for any tissue or body parts.
Packy's grave, like that of Rama and Tusko, had about 2 inches of hydrated lime in the bottom, and required 4 feet of soil on the top for settling and decomposition.
Any necropsy on the bodies was done onsite according to guidelines set by the Associations of Zoos and Aquariums. No necropsy was done on Packy.
Zoo and Metro officials also laid out a checklist to follow, including using unmarked vehicles to transport Packy's body to the site, requiring that staff wear clothing without zoo emblems or markings, and writing talking points for contractors hired to dig the grave and operate a crane lifting his body, to keep any nosy onlookers at bay.
Buried in a landfill, town square
Packy's burial is rare. Hova Najarian, the zoo's media and public relations officer, says most animals that die at the zoo are cremated. "Elephants are the exception because of their size," Najarian says. "I'm not sure how common burial is at other zoos, but for those that have the resources it is often considered a good option."
It's not common at other zoos either. Since 2000, about 150 elephants have died in dozens of zoos across the nation. Most of the animals are either cremated or "digested" using chemicals.
When the San Diego Zoo's 45-year-old African elephant Mila was found dead in mid-March, the zoo sent her remains to its wildlife disease labs, where her body was put through a "enzymatic digestion process that reduces the material to dust," says Christine Simmons, of the zoo's public relations office.
When the Denver Zoo's 52-year-old Asian elephant Dolly was euthanized in early September 2016, pieces of her were preserved by the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and the rest was "destroyed," says Marina Belisle, public relations coordinator for the Denver Zoological Foundation.
In December 2016, when 44-year-old African elephant Petunia was euthanized by staff at the Riverbanks Zoo & Garden in Columbia, South Carolina, her body was buried on zoo property, says Susan O'Cain, the zoo's public relations manager.
When the Toronto Zoo's 41-year-old African elephant Tara, matriarch of its elephant herd, died in November 2009, she was laid to rest on zoo grounds overlooking the Rouge River, where two other zoo elephants are buried.
Two of the oddest elephant burials were the August 1996 death of Hattie, a 26-year-old Asian elephant that performed with Circus Vargas, and the July 1972 death of Norma Jean, an elephant that performed with the Clark and Walters Circus, a traveling show that played mostly small towns.
Hattie had become ill with TB and died after performing in August 1996 in Southern California, according a report by USA Today. She died in Colorado as the circus traveled to Illinois. Her body was taken to Colorado State University in Fort Collins for a necropsy, USA Today reported. After the procedure, Hattie was laid to rest in the Larimar County Landfill's animal burial area.
Norma Jean, a 6,500-pound elephant, the star of the Clark and Walters Circus, was struck by lightning while chained to a tree in the small town of Oquawka, Illinois. The bolt knocked her trainer, "Possum Red," about 30 feet. Norma Jean died in the town square, where she was buried in a 12-foot-deep pit. Her grave was unmarked until 1977, when Wade Meloan raised money to build a monument, complete with a carved headstone and a small elephant statue.
Her story inspired filmmaker John Behnke's June 1988 short documentary, "Norma Jean: A Shocking True Story."
Rama's paint brush touch
Pet was the first elephant buried in the Clackamas County natural area. The 51-year-old Asian elephant was euthanized in August 2006 after suffering from severe arthritis and a bone infection in her left front foot.
Rama was the second elephant buried there. The 31-year-old Asian elephant, son of Packy and Rosy, was euthanized in March 2015 because of a 25-year-old leg injury and "advanced degenerative joint disease" that led to declining health and mobility. Rama also was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 2013, but was being treated for the illness when he died.
He was known for his colorful splatter and swish-swash paintings, some of which were displayed at a Pearl District gallery in 2015.
"Losing Rama was hard for everyone, especially the keepers who were closest to him," said Dr. Tim Storms in June 2015, the zoo's veterinarian.
Tusko, the third elephant buried in Clackamas County, was, at 45, the oldest Asian elephant in North America. He was euthanized in December 2015 after a painful decades-old leg injury limited his movement. The former circus elephant came to Oregon in 2005 on a breeding loan and was the father of Samudra and Lilly. He was blind in his right eye and had to have his tusks removed because of chronic infections.
Tusko was sold in the early 1970s to the Central Florida Zoo and was named Sobik. He was renamed Tusko and was featured in Circus Vargas shows during the 1980s.
"The 10 years Tusko spent at the Oregon Zoo was the longest period he'd ever stayed in one place," said zoo elephant curator Bob Lee in 2015.
Life-size 3-D image of Packy planned for Elephant Lands exhibit
Packy would have been 55 on Friday.
Instead of his usual vegetable birthday cake to smash and gobble, the Oregon Zoo plans to quietly mark the occasion. That is, of course, until a proposal is unveiled for a permanent life-size 3-D image of the beloved Asian elephant to be displayed at the new Elephant Lands exhibit.
Hova Najarian, the zoo's media and public relations officer, says the zoo originally had planned a semi-permanent topiary-like sculpture to unveil around Packy's birthday, "with the intention of creating something more permanent down the road."
"There was so much interest and enthusiasm for a permanent sculpture that we are moving forward with those plans now," Najarian says. "We won't be able to complete it for his birthday, but we hope to unveil it this summer."
Packy was born April 14, 1962, to fanfare and media attention. The offspring of Belle and Thonglaw, he was the first elephant born in the Western Hemisphere in 44 years. People from around the world came to Portland to see the new elephant, and zoo attendance hit 1 million visitors for the first time.
Portland's Free the Oregon Zoo Elephants plans a rally from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. outside the zoo Saturday, April 15, to mark Packy's birthday. The group hosts weekly rallies at the zoo to demand that the elephants be freed.
Kevin L. Harden is digital media editor for Pamplin Media Group. 503-546-5167. email:
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