Early this month, the Oregon Zoo revealed that 13-year-old Asian elephant “Rose Tu” is pregnant.
Elephant births seem almost common today. But in 1962, the zoo attracted worldwide attention with the first elephant born in captivity in 44 years. You know him as Packy.
The man who helped make that happen is retired now. Recently, Dr. Matt Maberry sat down with Oregon Field Guide’s Vince Patton to recall an important mark in elephant breeding history.
Matt Maberry: "That was a tremendous event."
The most famous name at the Oregon Zoo belongs not to Dr. Matt Maberry but to his well known patient. Packy.
Matt Maberry: "I don’t think I counted for much. Packy was the important thing."
In 1962, zookeepers knew almost nothing about elephant breeding. They weren’t even sure how long a pregnancy would last.
Dr. Maberry paid constant attention to Packy’s mother, Belle.
Matt Maberry: "She was uncomfortable many times. Sometimes she’d be leaning up against a wall, trying to kick her stomach and making little squealing sounds so I mean it kind of interfered with your sleep. Even though it was in the hay pile."
Maberry slept on hay in the elephant barn for two months waiting for the delivery.
He also brought in the tools of modern medicine.
The zoo discovered some long lost documentary footage recently. It shows Maberry listening to Belle’s heartbeat with a stethoscope, taking blood samples from her ear, and attaching EKG pads to her thick elephant skin to monitor her and her fetus.
Mike Keele: "I worked with Dr. Maberry a couple of years in ’71, '72, '73."
Mike Keele is the zoo’s assistant director today.
Mike Keele: "I think it’s valuable to recognize the efforts of some of the folks that did really early stuff here and I personally believe they did amazing stuff for what they knew at the time."
The two men reunited in a recent visit Maberry made to the zoo.
Mike Keele: "Hi Dr. Maberry. How are you? Been a long time."
The zoo’s elephant barn has been remodeled since doctor Maberry left the zoo in the early 1970’s.
Matt Maberry: "Oh yea, I tell you. This zoo is sure different."
Before Belle, veterinarians had never thought to take an elephant’s hormone levels during a pregnancy.
Matt Maberry: "I was taking samples of progesterone levels, which was really good work to do way back in the 60’s."
Mike Keele: "Because it’s the foundation of what we do today."
Maberry says Belle was very tolerant of having people close by as she gave birth. After having tended her so closely, at the moment of delivery, Maberry found he could do nothing but stand back.
Matt Maberry: "Just stand and watch. Because you couldn’t catch the thing."
All 225 pounds of Packy arrived on the zoo’s concrete floor.
Matt Maberry: "Oh, I remember going in and helping Belle clean him up. And she gave him a kick with her front foot to stir him, so we struggled together and got him on his feet."
On the old film you can see Packy wobble. But he learns to stand on his own fairly quickly.
Matt Maberry: "It wasn’t long before she had him nursing. But he sure was a hairy little thing."
The first birth of an elephant in captivity in 44 years set off a stampede of visitors.
Within 16 months, the Oregon Zoo had 4 elephant babies to show off. Mike Keele credits Dr. Maberry for much of that success.
Mike Keele: "Obviously if we wanted to learn about elephants, we needed to learn how to make them happy so they feel good about raising calves in captivity. And he did a fine job of that in his career here."
It’s been 5 years since Maberry has seen his most famous delivery.
Matt Maberry: "That’s Packy."
Packy is now 45-years-old.
Mike Keele: "He’s pretty good looking for 45, don’t you think?"
Matt Maberry: "Yes he is!"
What they learned in those early days has enabled the Oregon Zoo to boast the most successful elephant breeding program in the world.
Mike Keele: "He was really pioneering the unknown at that time."
To this day, Dr. Maberry modestly plays down his role.
Matt Maberry: "It’s like a woman having a baby. When the baby comes, the doctor’s forgotten, and the baby is the important thing."
You can see that long lost film of Packy and learn about the other animals Dr. Maberry tended on the Oregon Field Guide web site