For 33 years, E.T. the Pacific walrus was a Tacoma icon. Having arrived at the Zoo as an orphan in 1982, he won hearts with his famous flipper wave and endearing vocalizations.
Now, two years after E.T.'s passing in 2015, Tacoma gets its beloved walrus back - in a bronze sculpture that welcomes visitors at the Zoo's front gates.
"E.T. was the best walrus ever, and our entire staff is grateful that this sculpture of him will welcome visitors to Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium for many years to come," said Lisa Triggs, the staff biologist who was E.T.'s primary keeper for more than two decades. "It's absolutely beautiful."
E.T. was famous for his friendliness to visitors, including a famous flipper wave. That's a key part of his bronze replica, which visitors can high-five as they come into the Zoo.
And he'll continue to inspire all of us to care about walruses and other Arctic mammals, and the perils they face due to climate change and ocean pollution.
Sculpting an icon
For artist Matthew Gray Palmer, recreating E.T. in larger-than-life bronze was a challenge that had him modeling a keychain-sized image of a walrus while watching the zoo's walruses in action.
"It's always a challenge to capture the subtleties of an animal that was known for so long, by so many who had deep personal bonds with him," said Palmer, who found a great resource in Triggs to learn about E.T.'s features and personality.
The sculptor - whose resume includes sculptures of African elephants at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, polar bears at the Columbus Zoo and tigers at the Denver Zoo - then created a life-size clay model in his San Juan Island studio, before shipping it to the foundry for production.
The finished bronze - slightly larger than life at 10.6 feet long, 8 feet wide and 6 feet high - was set in place outside the zoo gates, and formally unveiled Sept. 18, 2017 by Triggs and Larry Norvell, director of the Zoo Society which raised $100,000 of the sculpture's $148,500 budget.
(The rest comes from Metro Parks Tacoma's public art program and the zoo's bond fund budget.)
"E.T. touched our hearts in a rare and special way," said Andrea Smith, president of Metro Parks Tacoma's Board of Commissioners. "Generations of visitors grew to know and love Pacific walruses through this gentle giant. Now generations more will, too."
E.T. in action
E.T. was YouTube-famous for his vocalizations on command, with over 3 million views. Watch him in action here!
And here's our farewell tribute to Tacoma's most beloved walrus. We love you, E.T.