“I remember when Packy was born in 1962; I was six years old then. Although I moved away from Portland for many years, I followed the progress of Chendra and her relocation from Malaysia. And now I have seen Lily on a sunny afternoon from the path above the elephant enclosure.” That’s how I began my formal, business letter to Bob Lee, Elephant Curator at the Oregon Zoo, in which I continued:
“I am starting a new series on my blog, which I’m eagerly anticipating, because it will highlight two areas concerning Asian elephants:
1) Noteworthy accomplishments to educate the public as well as enhance the lives of Asian elephants, exemplified by the Oregon Zoo’s care for its herd, including the new Elephant Lands habitat.
2) Their global plight, personified by Chendra’s previous experiences, including loss of habitat, the ‘human-elephant conflict,’ and mistreatment by owners, both government and private.
“For this reason, I would like to interview you in person for my blog.”
I sent this request to Lee’s own e-mail address at the Oregon Zoo on December 10. Little did I suspect the controversy that was brewing simultaneously. Three days later, on December 13, the Oregon Zoo received another letter via e-mail – this one from Lily Tomlin, comedian, actress and animal-rights activist. I immediately saw the match between Tomlin’s first name, and the name of the newest baby elephant at the Oregon Zoo. Hence the title of this blog post. I saw baby Lily about six months ago, and took a short video of her, which I posted on my channel at YouTube. Here is the link:
Tomlin sent her letter to Kim Smith, Oregon Zoo director. She wrote on behalf of a Portland-based group called Free the Oregon Zoo Elephants. “In it, Tomlin writes ‘the zoo initiated a bond measure in 2008 to create an offsite multi-acre preserve for the elephants. The voters overwhelmingly supported the measure. This preserve was meant to be used as a retirement home for the elephants. I urge you to maintain that original mission.’”(1) However, in reality, that bond “never contained language promising to build a preserve and it didn’t say such a place would be designed as a pachyderm retirement home.” (1)
Nevertheless, Tomlin concluded: “It is now 2013 and the preserve is still not a reality. At 51, Packy does not have a lot of time to wait. So I implore you to give him a taste of real freedom.”(2) “Tomlin has long worked to persuade zoos to ship their elephants off to one of the handful of sanctuaries nationwide.”(1)
Although the bond never promised to build an offsite preserve, the Oregon Zoo is moving ahead “with construction of the expansive new Elephant Lands habitat … which will provide our elephants with unprecedented choice in the way they spend their daily lives,” stated Smith. (2) Packy “is among many reasons the zoo is in the process of a $53 million expansion of its elephant exhibit. The new 6.25-acre habitat, dubbed Elephant Lands, is due to open in 2015.” (1)
Smith also stated: “With more than half a century of experience caring for Packy and his family, our community zoo is renowned as a world leader in Asian elephant welfare.” (2)
Those on both sides of the issue have valid points. Here is how I see it. A key factor in this controversy is that Packy is not a wild elephant. He was born and has lived his entire life at the Oregon Zoo. He is a domestic elephant. He could not survive on his own. The result would be the same as releasing any domestic animal into the wild. When Tomlin states that Packy should have “a taste of real freedom and a chance to live out his days where he will be able to live like a real elephant”(1), she is ill-informed.
Furthermore, his home and his family are here. These animal activists do not place enough importance on the elephants’ familial bonds. Sending him away would be the equivalent of ostracizing a human from his or her family. “We believe in family for our elephants,” says Smith. “We have the oldest elephant family in a zoo because Packy started it all. That social network is important to them. It’s important to their social welfare.”(1)
Finally, Packy is now an elderly elephant. Smith stated, “Packy is a geriatric elephant — the oldest male Asian elephant in North America — and he receives highly specialized care from our deeply dedicated keepers and veterinary staff.”(2) What would happen to us if we were sent off to a wilderness refuge, away from our family, as a senior citizen? That’s what Packy is.
I am a Portland native and current resident, even though I lived elsewhere for about thirty years. I care about the Asian elephant herd at the Oregon Zoo, and caring for an individual elephant cannot be isolated from caring for the herd. Lily Tomlin didn’t even come to Portland, and she has never met with the group called “Free the Oregon Zoo Elephants,” because she “didn’t have time.” (1) And her letter was ill-informed. Activists should get their facts straight in order to avoid diminishing their credibility.
“I wish,” Smith said, “they would focus on the plight of wild elephants. They face the biggest extinction crisis ever because of the ivory trade” as well as habitat loss and human-elephant conflict in Africa and Asia,(1) echoing the wording of my own e-mail letter, which the zoo received three days earlier.
The Asian elephants’ true plight on a global scale is this: currently there is neither adequate answer nor solution for them. In order to facilitate movement toward solutions, I will continue to document the controversies, conversations, current developments, challenges, and noteworthy accomplishments to educate the public as well as enhance the lives of Asian elephants.