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Elephant that killed zookeeper acted differently since death of matriarch of herd

By Sheena Elzie, Reporter, selzie@kspr.com
Chris Brewer, Digital Content Editor, cbrewer@schurz.com
Published On: Dec 24 2013 09:51:02 AM CST
Updated On: Oct 11 2013 10:14:09 PM CDT
Elephant kills zookeeper
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -

The City of Springfield released more details early Friday evening about the zookeeper fatality at Dickerson Park Zoo on Friday morning.

Edited news release, 5:55 p.m. Friday:

At the time of the incident, approximately 8:45 a.m., zookeepers were in the elephant barn, moving a 41-year-old female elephant, Patience, from the barn stalls into a chute.

The chute functions as a corridor connecting the barn to the yard. The chute is about 12 feet long, with adjustable walls which can made wide or be narrow. A narrow chute is useful for zookeepers to hold the animal when performing an inspection, which takes place at least twice a day.

Elephant chute

The chute’s walls are made of 6-inch round metal bars, about 10 feet tall, spaced about 15 inches apart — wide enough for a human to walk through, but narrow enough to restrain an elephant.

Elephants are moved through the chute several times a day, and zookeepers reported there was nothing unusual about this particular movement from the barn.

Zookeepers reported Patience’s behavior had been hesitant and submissive since the Oct. 4 death of Connie (Pinky), the elephant herd’s matriarch. They were watching her carefully, because of this behavior. Three zookeepers were present; a minimum of two zookeepers are required to be present when approaching the protective barrier.

The morning of the incident, Patience hesitated in the chute, and elephant manager John Phillip Bradford, 62, was coaxing her forward.  Bradford leaned into the chute, reaching for her with a guide.  The animal suddenly lunged forward, knocking Bradford down, into the chute.  The animal then crushed Bradford against the floor, killing him instantly.

The other zookeepers moved quickly to pull the animal away from Bradford. The whole incident took place in a matter of seconds.

Bradford’s actions were consistent with zoo policies and AZA Guidelines for Elephant Management and Care.

The Springfield Police Department was onsite immediately after the incident and conducted an initial investigation. When finalized their report will be made available to the City’s internal investigation team, which will include Parks Administration, Dickerson Park Zoo Management, City Safety staff from the Human Resources Department, and any additional resources needed.

In addition to the City’s internal investigation, there will be other investigations by appropriate oversight agencies, including the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Accreditation Commission.

Dickerson Park Zoo is internationally recognized for its elephant program. The zoo is the recipient of the 1997 Edward H. Bean Award from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, honoring the zoo’s elephant breeding program.

Dickerson Park Zoo’s highest priority right now is supporting staff members, friends and family through the tragedy of losing a staff member.

The combined events of losing the elephant herd’s matriarch, Connie (Pinky) to kidney disease Oct. 4, and now the death of elephant manager John Bradford, have had a tremendous impact upon the zoo staff. Zoo officials respectfully request privacy of staff members, friends and family.

No additional information will be released Friday.

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Previous reporting:

An elephant charged and killed an animal keeper at Dickerson Park Zoo on Friday morning.  Zoo directors say he was senior zookeeper and elephant manager John Bradford, 62.

Bradford and other staff were handling an elephant when Patience, a 41-year-old female elephant, became aggressive with Bradford and charged. Springfield Police and emergency responders were dispatched to the zoo in response to the accident in the zoo's elephant container at roughly 8:45 a.m. 

Bradford, a 30-year-employee of the zoo, died as a result of his injuries.  His family, who are outside Springfield, have been notified.  No other zoo employees were injured.

“This is very sad day for the Zoo family, as well as our community as a whole,” said Mike Crocker, assistant parks director and zoo director.

Many of Bradford's coworkers were visibly shaken up and echoed the sentiment that Friday was a tough day for zoo staff.

In a statement emailed Friday afternoon, city staff said the zoo had notified the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums of the incident. Patience won't be euthanized or face any discipline, the city said.

The statement also noted that zookeepers had been watching Patience and another female elephant after Pinky, the zoo's matriarch elephant, was put down Saturday due to complications from advanced kidney disease.