As the 1960s dawned, few Americans had ever seen a baby elephant. It had been more than 40 years since an elephant had been born in North America, and then only at a circus — never in a zoo.
But in a ramshackle exhibit yard at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, in the summer of 1960, the extraordinary occurred: A 15,000-pound male, Thonglaw, mated with a much smaller female, Belle, and Belle became pregnant. Zookeepers didn’t know that elephant gestation takes 22 months, though, and they missed the pregnancy altogether. Unaware, they transferred the pachyderm pair to a zoo in Portland, under a sharing agreement.
In April 1962, at the Portland zoo, Belle gave birth to a male named Packy, and an international sensation was ignited. Life magazine devoted an 11-page spread to the birth. The country got caught up in a Packy craze, with toys, clothes and books bearing the cute baby’s image flying off the shelves.
The public seemed to feel a unique connection to elephants, gentle giants who exhibit many humanlike qualities. Elephants live in families, exhibit memory and possess surprising self-awareness, such as recognizing themselves in a mirror. They experience grief and love, pain and fear.
Little Packy was everybody’s baby, and attendance at the Oregon Zoo soared as visitors from all over the world waited in half-mile-long lines to see him. Cash receipts skyrocketed, and so did donations.
It was clear that elephants, the world’s largest land mammals, were indeed “glamour beasts,” box-office stars that would help America’s zoos through the 20th century and into the 21st. Across the country, the race to produce baby elephants was on.
The effort would be good not only for zoos, officials insisted, it would be good for the Asian and African species that were under enormous pressure in their natural habitats. Zoos would help preserve and propagate elephants, they explained.
Fifty years later, The Seattle Times set out to examine how that effort has turned out. Despite the zoo industry’s insistence otherwise, by almost any measure, it has failed.
A gamble goes bad
It took decades, but Seattle finally got its own baby elephant. In 2000, an Asian female named Hansa was born at Woodland Park Zoo, instantly bewitching the public. But 6 ½ years later, when she was found dead on the elephant-barn floor early one morning, zoo officials knew their gamble had failed.
They suspected an elephant herpes virus known as EEHV that had begun ravaging young elephants at a handful of U.S. zoos. The virus, believed to spread by contact, could lie dormant for years, then move so swiftly it could destroy internal organs in hours.
They knew that the virus had infected elephants inside the Springfield, Mo., zoo where they sent Hansa’s mother to be bred. They feared it might find its way back to Seattle but the pluses “outweighed the negatives,” they said, and they took a risk.
Besides, the zoo industry’s governing body, the national Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), had privately approved Seattle’s plan. The AZA was desperate to produce elephants, hoping to reverse or at least slow an alarming decline in the number of the animals in American zoos.
Publicly, the zoo industry was claiming — and continues to claim today — that “elephants are thriving inside zoos.” It’s a message that AZA officials have delivered repeatedly to lawmakers and regulators, trumpeted in news releases, and highlighted in a recent national marketing campaign.
But they know it’s not true. And it never has been.
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