Behind the scenes at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, E.T. is basking in the worry and love of his fans, and the care of his keepers and veterinary staff.
The walrus is ill, and hundreds of the people who have made him one of the zoo's best-loved creatures have been sending him their prayers, energy and wishes for a good recovery.
E.T., who is 32, seemed lethargic and began refusing food the week of May 12, said zoo spokeswoman Kris Sherman. That, said head veterinarian Dr. Karen Wolf, is the behavior of an animal that does not feel well.
The veterinary staff tried to use an ultrasound to help identify the problem, but the machine could not get a proper image of the interior of 3,350-pound blubber-based creature. Based on his blood work, they believe he is suffering from an infection. They moved him to a private area behind the scenes at Rocky Shores, the home he has shared with female walruses Joan and Basilla since they arrived in 2006
Meanwhile, on Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium's Facebook page, messages, memories and encouragement to walrus and staff piled up by the hundreds.
Heather Toomey sent up a prayer for him: “Dear Heavenly Father, please bless this loving, kind and gentle creature! Please help him to feel better very soon, and please bless and guide those taking care of him to make him better! Amen... Thank you for the updates, please keep them coming. E.T. is like a member of our family as well as a member of soooo many other people's families...We love you, E.T.”
“Oh, E.T., please get well soon, buddy! You are the reason I decided to pursue a career in biology. Praying for a recovery,” wrote Krista Little.
“E.T. is as old as I am, and ever since I can remember, when my family and I would drive down from Forks to come see my aunt and uncle in Tacoma, we'd always go to the zoo. I've been lucky enough to be sprayed by him many times,” wrote Christine Murphy. “Prayers that he has a very speedy recovery and thank you for taking such great care of him.”
Ron Adamson recalled E.T.s first day on display: “I was working there the day he arrived. We were working on the red wolf enclosure and would call E.T.!!! And he would answer...”
John B. Donovan wrote: “Positive energy and herring to you, E.T. Miss swimming with you, buddy. Get well!”
Jessica Bauml pleased, “Oh, E.T. Please get well soon. You are my favorite buddy at the zoo.”
Leandra Bogart's son has a special bond with the car-sized mammal.
“Oh, no,” she wrote. “We LOVE E.T. He's a must-see when we go. Every time we go, my oldest son, who has severe autism, likes to lean over by the netting, and E.T. makes noises at him every single time. Special moment.”
“My heart goes out to the vet staff and E.T.'s keepers. I personally know how much they care for him and how difficult it is to watch their 'baby' become ill, the feeling of helplessness at times is overwhelming. I've also seen this staff overcome great odds and save lives of endangered animals. E.T. couldn't be in better hands. Hoping for a smooth recovery, so the sleepless nights are kept to a minimum,” J.K. and Grady Gilmartin posted.
Crystal Engstrom was planning a permanent tribute to the walrus before he fell ill.
“Oh sad,” she wrote. “E.T. is representative of my childhood, and I have an appointment to get a tattoo of him on Saturday.”
E.T. has been a zoo star from the start, when the tale of his rescue and recovery was front page news.
In 1982, the members of a Conoco drilling crew near Alaska's North Slope spotted a dot, a tiny walrus in the distance.
They did what every wildlife biologist wished we all would: They left him alone and observed him, hoping his mother would return for him. She did not. After they had documented his three miles of waddling over the tundra for two days they notified the pros. U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists and Alaska Zoo staff came to the rescue of the infant, frail at a mere 155 pounds. At the zoo's infirmary, keepers persuaded him to feed from a bottle.
He was a wizened little critter who made weird noises and bonded with his helpers. That same year, a similar creature was earning millions for Steven Spielberg. Naming the walrus E.T. after the cinematic extraterrestrial was pretty much inevitable.
The world of zoos is well connected, and the Alaskans knew that the people of Tacoma had paid for a new exhibit at Point Defiance. Rocky Shores, which opened that fall, was built to teach us about the creatures of the continent's northwestern coastal waters. E.T. began his life in Tacoma behind the scenes, feeding on whipping cream, chopped clams and vitamins until he was sturdy enough to swim and bask in the exhibit and dine on a balanced diet of herring squid, mackerel, clams and capelin.
His keepers say that, in technical terms, E.T. is a love, a sweetheart, laid back, the best walrus ever. And smart. He'll flop onto the scale to be weighed, lie still to give blood samples, present his teeth to be brushed. (His tusks had a history of infection, so they were removed a few years ago.)
He looks at his visitors, flaps and flops and has earned his place as one of the zoo's icons.
He also has contributed to serious research.
Keeper Lisa Triggs has cared for him for 18 years and studied his hormones and breeding behavior for seven, though he has not fathered a calf with any of what zoo staff technically refer to as his girlfriends. Triggs wrote her master's thesis on her research.
Another scientist keeps records of E.T.'s girth measurements for a study on climate change. It's valuable information, as the three Point Defiance walruses are three of only 19 Pacific walruses in accredited U.S. zoos and aquariums.
E.T. has lived at the zoo longer than any other mammal there, Sherman said. There are elephants who are older, but they came to Point Defiance as adults. And there may be rockfish in the aquarium who are in their 30s, she said.
But it is the rare rockfish who enchants at first meeting, as E.T. can, and has done over three decades. Teens who mugged at him when he was but a calf grew up and told their kids how adorable he is.
Now those kids are explaining to their children that E.T. is sick, and we all hope he gets better soon.
Here is a sampling of the messages sent to E.T. on Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium's Facebook page.
“E.T is so friendly! I met him in 1986 or 1987 when I did a story for the local paper. He's curious and you just know he's got a lot going on in that big head of his. Get well!” – Bob Fuller
“Don't you leave us, you big goofball. Too many of us love you dearly. Hang in there.” – Kathleen Smith
“No, no, no... Not my E.T. He is my favorite. Prayers will be said tonight.” – Starlight Johnson
“Tears in eyes....I love that walrus... have seen him since I was young, so 25+ years... my prayers go to him and his family (caregivers).” – Melena Gillihan
“Keep fighting for your health, buddy! I want to see you for our birthday.” – Julie Cooley
“I know I'm just one of a lot of people who are thinking about him & hope he gets better soon.” – Edie Vargas
“Praying he gets well soon. He and my daughter are the same age. I remember when he came to the zoo.” – Kathie Black
“Get well, E.T., bringing 100 second-graders to see you soon!!!” – Jill Squires
“Hang in there, big guy. You are the face of the entire zoo.” – Jack Landon