Stick your nose into Portland's animal realm to learn why the elephant, not the lion, is king.
On my very first visit to the Oregon Zoo I saw a 47-year-old orangutan wrap herself in a sheet and dance like Stevie Wonder, a hissing cockroach crawl up a young girl's arm, and a tie-dyed lorikeet crash-land on a little kid's head. I hitched a ride on a steam train, winced as a white-cheeked gibbon wailed like a car alarm, and stood by as an army of no-nonsense moms barked, "Stay where I can see you." Then I saw Tusko. Even from 20 yards away, Tusko is hard to miss. The Asian elephant stands 10 feet tall and tips the scales at just under seven tons. His trunk alone weighs 400 pounds and on this hot day he was using it to sprinkle sand over his behemoth backside—the pachyderm equivalent of applying sunscreen. "Tusko is stud No. 1 around here, no question about it," says Bob Lee, senior elephant keeper at the zoo. EVERY ZOO HAS ITS ROYALTY—HERE IT’S THE ELEPHANTS. Lee helps oversee a herd of seven Asian elephants. Which is another way of saying he works with the stars. Every zoo has its royalty, its fauna with a fan base, the ones whose images get splashed onto marketing material and gift shop windows. Here it's the elephants. And for good reason. The elephant-breeding program at the Oregon Zoo ranks as one of the best in the world. Its high repute can be traced back to the 1962 birth of Packy, the first elephant born in the Western Hemisphere in 44 years. Packy's arrival garnered international attention, including an 11-page spread in Life magazine. Now the herd's newest celebrity, a rambunctious 1-year-old bull named Samudra (or Sam), has visitors lining up three deep at the viewing stations. Thanks in part to the vigor of Tusko and Packy, Sam is the 28th elephant born here and the first ever with parents and grandparents born in the United States. This is significant, as some studies suggest that the stresses of captivity can depress pachyderms and shorten their lives. At the Oregon Zoo, elephants are a family affair. "We've made a great effort to try and create a natural herd environment," says Lee. "This isn't some random collection of elephants thrown together. Many of them share genes and behave much like a family would in the wild." There's a saying in the zoo community: Cute and cuddly brings them through the gates. And few things on earth are cuter than a klutzy baby elephant. "This is an exciting time for us, " says zoo spokesperson Bill LaMarche. "We're putting up record numbers, and Sam has a lot to do with that." Last year 1.6 million people spun the turnstiles of the Oregon Zoo—located at the west end of Portland's Washington Park—making it the most popular paid attraction in the state. In fact, over the last 10 years, the zoo's attendance has grown by more than 50 percent. And the increasing interest in animal parks isn't limited to Oregon. Between 1998 and 2008 zoo attendance across the country soared 23 percent—this at a time when our entertainment dollars are being stretched thinner than an elephant's ear. So why are we suddenly wild about zoos? "Zoos are getting better," says Dave Thomas, a senior primate keeper here with 35 years on the job. "Before, it was about collecting one of every animal and displaying them side by side in steel cages. Now exhibits are designed three-dimensionally so you can experience the wildlife in a much more organic way, as you would in nature." Thomas leads me to a construction site on the southeast side of the zoo. Laid out in front of us is a rough skeleton of the 6,600-square-foot Red Ape Reserve, due to open next spring as the home of three orangutans and a pair of white-cheeked gibbons. Even without the waterfall and foliage, an outline emerges. One viewing area is inside a replica of a Sumatran hut; from another, in the middle of the exhibit, you look out from what's meant to resemble a huge fallen log. The compartment is studded with portholes, so you may see orangutans crawling directly over your head. Beyond that, there's a thick faux tree where apes can forage for food hidden in secret nooks by zookeepers. This last detail, known in zoospeak as environmental enrichment, is a hallmark of the Oregon Zoo. Teams of people work on ways to challenge animals with activities that mimic their experiences in nature. As you walk around you see its benefits: a chimpanzee prying into an artificial termite mound stocked with applesauce; a sea otter banging a treatfilled ice block against a rock. The animals here are busy, and therefore more likely to be happy. Of course, some animals need more than waterfalls and applesauce. Of the 260 species (and 2,200 animals) on display at the Oregon Zoo, more than 20 percent are either endangered or threatened. Zoos are quick to trumpet their conservation efforts, but few engage as deeply and fervently in the cause as this one, especially with local species. The Oregon Zoo is currently involved in seven recovery and release programs for imperiled critters such as the silverspot butterfly, California condor, and western pond turtle, an olive-shelled reptile six to eight inches long that can live up to 70 years. Every year dozens of these turtles hole up in the zoo's conservation lab until they're big enough to be released in the Columbia River Gorge where, it's hoped, they'll be able to fend off largemouth bass and nonnative bullfrogs. A decade ago there were about 150 left in the state of Washington, but because of the zoo's head-start program the population is now estimated to be 10 times that number. From behind a wall of glass I watch the turtles. They're tiny little things, hatchlings an inch or two long, scattered in aluminum tubs. Not much to look at, really. Not like a 1,200-pound sea lion rollicking through a kelp forest or 100 hanging fruit bats letting loose creepy high-pitched squeals. And nothing like the thundering splash when one of the planet's largest land animals belly flops into a pool amid cheers from a busload of third graders. Nope, just a couple buckets of turtles. They're in trouble, but with a little bit of help they might get back on their feet. They might crawl out of this zoo and back to their pond and make more baby turtles, healthy ones, which will live for years and years. Wouldn't that be wild?
Photography courtesy Oregon Zoo/Brock Parker
This article was first published in November 2009. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.