Even as Portlanders wished Packy, the Oregon Zoo’s largest inmate, a happy 49th birthday April 15, we here at the Rogue Desk joined many fans of the nearly 7-ton birthday boy in wondering, “How long?”
How long will it take Metro, which operates the Oregon Zoo, to expand the turf for Packy and the zoo’s five other elephants from 1.5 acres to 6?
After all, quadrupling the space for elephants was a central selling point of Metro’s successful $125 million bond measure for the zoo in 2008. (WW opposed the measure, which voters passed 60 percent to 40 percent.)
“They sold this measure on improving life for the elephants,” says elephants advocate Courtney Scott, a Portland photographer who says she voted “yes” on the bond. “Having done nothing in 30 months for the elephants is a betrayal of the elephants and taxpayers.”
Expenditure of the bond funds was delayed by a blistering November 2009 report by Metro Auditor Suzanne Flynn, who found zoo staff had botched previous big-ticket projects at the state’s most popular paid tourist attraction.
Two high-level staffers departed after the audit and a bond oversight committee found the auditor’s concerns “have been/are being addressed.”
But other news from that citizen oversight committee is less than inspiring.
“The zoo has started some of the nine projects outlined during the bond campaign,” according to a February committee report. “Construction has started on the Veterinary Medical Center, the Penguin Filtration Project and some of the water and energy projects.”
Stephanie Cameron, a zoo spokeswoman, says expanding Packy’s domain has been delayed because the planned projects “require careful and complex sequencing to ensure the zoo continues to operate without disruption.”
A $1.5 million master-planning effort is under way for the rest of the projects. At an open house last month, zoo staff unveiled a design for the new 6-acre stomping grounds, which are now in the adjacent Elk Meadow exhibit.
Cameron says the zoo hopes to break ground on the $19 million elephant habitat expansion next summer and adds that Metro approved taking an option on a 350-acre piece of land in Sandy for a planned offsite elephant sanctuary.
Phil Prewett, a keeper at the Oregon Zoo, lobbied against the bond measure and is frustrated but not surprised that Packy’s living environment today is no better than it was 30 months ago.
“I told you so,” Prewett says.