Zoo gains trunkful of history by chance

PORTLAND — The estate sale brimmed with photo negatives and slides, military memorabilia, antiquated mountaineering gear and a box that so intrigued Larry Clark he sprang for the $4 price. Its label read simply "zoo."

Good thing he snagged it: Images, memos, letters and yellowed news clippings inside the box fill in missing pieces of Oregon Zoo history. The unexpected archive provides glimpses into how things were in the 1950s and '60s, and illuminates ways that science and husbandry have changed zoo operations. Plus, its contents make you wonder how things might have been if some outlandish ideas had taken hold.

Imagine, for example, Packy, the zoo's prize elephant, confined to a dungeon because of his frightful behavior.

Or a proposal to use pachyderms to help log Northwest forests. But first things first.

Clark, a southeast Portland antique dealer, routinely peruses estate sales. In November, he spotted one across the street from his grandparents' old place in Vancouver, Wash.

Years earlier, he'd known the homeowner enough to exchange a smile or a wave. But walking through the man's house, he wished he'd known him better. "Somebody cool lived here," he remembers thinking.

Clark is too young, at 49, to recall the hoopla surrounding April 14, 1962, when Portland's zoo welcomed wobbly little Packy, the first elephant born in the United States in 44 years.

Clark nosed through the box he bought, scanned the most interesting photos into his computer, then gave the contents to Carli Davidson, his next-door neighbor. Davidson, a commercial photographer, volunteers twice a week in the zoo's photography/videography department. "I spent all night reading through all the papers," says Davidson, 29.

The artifacts, she says, "gave me lots of insight into ... the beginnings of the Oregon Zoo, and what made it so famous — its elephant program."

She lugged the box along on her next volunteer day and gave it to Michael Durham, manager of the zoo's image library.

"When we find something like this," Durham says, "we see it as very valuable. It fills in bits of the record that we didn't have ... Back in the '60s and '70s, we didn't really document that much."

The files reveal a cast of quirky characters who worked at the zoo during an era when the nation was racially segregated, the space race was on and turning wild animals into captive specimens was widely accepted. Little science was available to guide zookeepers through an elephant's pregnancy and delivery.

"They were figuring this out as they went along," says Davidson, who combs through the files during her shifts.

Notes and stories provide insight into Jack Marks, the zoo director of that era, Matthew Maberry, then zoo veterinarian, and Morgan Berry, the elephant importer and trainer who supplied the zoo its original Asian elephant herd.

Clippings detail the drawn-out wait for Belle to deliver Packy, a mystery given that keepers didn't know that Asian elephant gestation lasts 22 months. People in the inner circle formed a club that, judging from files, was partly educational, partly social and seriously tongue-in-cheek. They called it the Society for the Protection and Observation of Pregnant Pachyderms, or SPOPP, and members anointed themselves with titles. Berry was "Lord High Holder of the Hook." Marks, "Guardian of the Golden Nipple."

Among the files saved was Doug Baker's Sept. 20, 1963, Oregon Journal column, in which Baker declared, "Packy, the darling of zoo visitors last summer, hasn't been seen by zoo goers this year. In truth, it's doubtful that Packy will ever again be a part of the Portland zoo's elephant herd. ... Packy is living in solitary confinement in the old zoo 'dungeon' at Washington Park."

Packy was 17 months — about the same age as the zoo's newest elephant, Samudra.

Keepers apparently hadn't the know-how to safely handle a growing and potentially dangerous bull elephant.

Yet, as visitors know, they figured it out.

Packy, Tusko and Samudra routinely move from the barn through the elephant yards today, exercising and mingling with the females.

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