E.T. the Walrus is feeling good for his age.
He has white bristles and more than a few wrinkles on his leathery skin, but the 3,450-pound creature has two girlfriends and a sensitive nature that has made him one of the most beloved animals at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium.
To celebrate his 30th birthday, the zoo is hosting a three-day bash starting today, complete with fishy treats for the walruses and games and crafts for the kids.
“He’s such an iconic animal for our zoo,” said senior staff biologist Lisa Triggs, who has worked with E.T. for 16 years. “So many people grew up watching him grow up. He’s just phenomenal.”
Since E.T. was found in the wild, his exact birthday is unknown but it’s believed to be sometime in June.
His turning the Big 3-0 is a major event for zoo workers, which is why they have put posters up around town and used billboards to invite the public to his celebration. Birthday buttons with E.T., young and old, will be sold at the main zoo gate this weekend for $1. All profits will go to the conservation fund.
The sea mammal stole Tacoma’s heart Aug. 17, 1982, when he arrived at Point Defiance.
His story started in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, where a group of oil workers spotted the baby wandering alone. They watched him walk three miles across Arctic tundra in search of his family.
When E.T. remained on his own for days, they rescued him and named him after the extraterrestrial creature in Steven Spielberg’s movie.
The walrus was dehydrated and weighed only 155 pounds when he was taken in by the Alaska Zoo and U.S. Fish & Wildlife officials. Although they described E.T. as “very frail,” Alaska Zoo staff members were able to nurse him from a bottle.
Since Point Defiance had nearly completed its Rocky Shores exhibit, the zoo offered to care for E.T., who received round-the-clock care once he arrived in Tacoma.
Within two months, he was testing the waters at Rocky Shores and bonding with the community. Visitors fell in love with his playful nature and flocked to see him, eagerly pressing their noses to the glass as he swam lazily on his back underwater.
That hasn’t changed.
The walrus now is one of the most popular animals at the zoo, if not the most popular. Schoolchildren know him by name and he’s a regular icon, with his lovable face and gigantic rolls plastered on billboards and other advertisements for Point Defiance.
E.T., however, has changed over the decades.
For starters, he’s put on more than 3,000 pounds and been trained in myriad behaviors.
He voluntarily presents himself for weekly weigh-ins – getting every last inch of his blubber on a metal scale – and allows veterinarians to take blood samples, brush his teeth and do other maintenance necessary for his health and care.
He has picked up an impressive array of tricks that tickle his trainers and delight the public. E.T. can lift his flippers in greeting, stick out his tongue and nod yes or shake his head no in answer to questions.
He also has a repertoire of sounds he makes on command – eight, in fact. He can talk, sputter, whistle, grumble, roar, speak, growl and make a bell noise.
Triggs said he is amazing to work with, and is eager to please, so he learns quickly.
“It’s like training your dog,” she said. “It’s just a bigger animal that can squash you.”
VIDEO: E.T.'s vocalizations. From Point Defiance Zoo via YouTube.