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The day E.T. the walrus was saved and began the life of an icon

E.T. was always popular with visitors to the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. In this 1995 photo, he bestows a whiskery kiss on  Suzanne Boutet, 13, of Silverdale, who was participating in a weekend camp for kids.
E.T. was always popular with visitors to the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. In this 1995 photo, he bestows a whiskery kiss on Suzanne Boutet, 13, of Silverdale, who was participating in a weekend camp for kids. Staff file, 1995

If it weren’t for the polar bears, E.T. the walrus might never have been rescued and brought to Tacoma.

Mike Sparks and three other workers for Conoco Oil Co. were surveying land near Prudhoe Bay in Alaska in 1982 when a helicopter radioed from above.

A herd of polar bears had entered a fog bank near the workers, who dropped their tools and ran for a Suburban parked nearby.

They were driving back to camp when Sparks, now 68, saw E.T. on the tundra near the road and stopped to investigate.

“I just remember looking off and seeing this brown hump in the distance,” Sparks said Friday.

E.T., 33, died Thursday. The Pacific walrus, an icon at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, struggled with arthritis and other health problems for more than a year and did not wake up after a surgery to drain an abscess.

When Sparks heard the news, he said he was heart-broken. He remembers E.T.’s rescue day like it was yesterday.

Sparks initially assumed the brown hump he’d seen was a seal but as he walked closer, he saw the whiskers and realized it was a walrus.

E.T. was an infant then, two months at best. Sparks recalls him being about 2½ feet long and roughly 50 pounds, small enough to be held in his arms.

“He was very frightened and not aggressive at all,” Sparks said. “I crouched down and reached over and touched him. He was quivering a little bit looking at me. Obviously he was distressed.”

The rest of his crew came running. One of the men likened the walrus to E.T., the extraterrestrial in the Steven Spielberg movie of the same name. That’s how the walrus got his name.

Sparks scooted E.T. onto his raincoat and they carried him to the SUV.

“He sat in the back seat between the guys,” Sparks said.

The first call went to the Department of Fish & Wildlife, which said the walrus was too young to survive without his mother.

“I told them they couldn’t put him down,” Sparks said. “This guy deserved a chance at life.”

He asked his wife to call the Alaska Zoo, which volunteered to take the Pacific walrus until it could find him a permanent home.

While the crew waited for the aircraft that would spirit E.T. away, they took him to the chow hall. They dumped a can of clams mixed with cream sauce into a bowl and offered it to the walrus.

E.T. didn’t even look at the dish.

Sparks had a photograph snapped of the walrus sitting in his lap.

Then they said goodbye.

It wasn’t long before Point Defiance volunteered to house E.T. at its Rocky Shores exhibit, which was just being completed.

He was an immediate hit when he arrived in Tacoma on Aug. 17, 1982. Visitors to the zoo crowded around to see the walrus press his face against the glass or perform on command.

Over time, E.T. learned to stick out his tongue, blow bubbles, lift his flippers in greeting and nod yes or no in answer to questions.

Children and adults alike stared with wide eyes when E.T. would go through a repertoire of eight sounds – talk, sputter, whistle, grumble, roar, speak, growl and a bell-like vibration.

John Houck, the zoo’s deputy director, said E.T. was one of the highest trained, engaging walruses around. With his death, there now 16 walruses in accredited U.S. zoos and aquariums.

“He was large in life, he was large in the community, he was a joy to work with, he was a joy to behold,” Houck said.

E.T. became the face of the zoo, appearing on billboards and starring in an IBM commercial in 2014.

Although his exact birthday was never known, zoo staff members gathered every June to celebrate with fishy treats.

The first time Sparks saw E.T. in years was when he saw the walrus staring out at him from a newspaper photograph taken during a birthday party.

Then, years later, came another photo from another birthday shindig.

It took Sparks at least 10 years to make his way down to Point Defiance to check on his old friend.

He arrived five minutes before closing time, paid his admission and dashed to Rocky Shores. There was E.T., swimming in his tank, three tons heavier than when they’d last met.

It was enough, that brief glimpse of the orphaned walrus that was clearly loved.

Over the years, Sparks’ children and grandchildren all came to visit E.T. The whole bunch made plans to come last November but Sparks was sick and couldn’t make it.

He said he regrets not getting a chance for a last goodbye.

“The best part is he lived a good life,” Sparks said. “He was loved and he brought a great amount of joy to so many people.”

Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653

stacia.glenn@thenewstribune.com

Honoring E.T.

Condolences and memories of E.T. the walrus can be shared on the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium’s Facebook page, sent to zoo staff members at 5400 N. Pearl St., Tacoma, WA 98407 or written on a banner provided at the zoo.

Donations in his honor can be made to the Point Defiance Zoo Society Dr. Holly Reed Conservations Fund online, or by calling 253-404-3651.

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