Elephant That Crushed Woman Handler Gets Reprieve

Knoxville Zoo officials call death an accident, elephant won't be punished.

ByABC News
January 17, 2011, 7:17 AM

Jan. 17, 2011 — -- An African elephant that crushed handler Stephanie James at the Knoxville Zoo will not be punished.

Officials at the Knoxville zoo now believe that James' death was a tragic accident.

"The elephants acted as they should in that situation. In other words when they received a command, they responded. She responded in this case," Jim Vina, executive director of the Knoxville Zoo, said.

The 8,000 pound African elephant backed James into a stall on Friday, pushing her into metal bars.

"When something is... up to four tons...and that animal...pushes you against a wall or whatever inside tight quarters, you don't have a chance. It's just that powerful an animal," renowned zookeeper Jack Hanna said.

The 26-year-old elephant named Edie was not acting aggressively and followed the desperate commands of another handler to move back, zoo officials said.

When Edie followed the commands to move away from James, it was too late. The 33-year-old James lay crumpled against a stall. Medics rushed her to the hospital where she later died.

"Edie, the African elephant involved in the incident, will not be punished or disciplined for the incident," Vina said.

Hanna said that he, too, believes James' death was an accident.

"I can tell you I've seen elephants in the wild go through the brush and the bush and it's like a bulldozer...because they eat 200 or 300 pounds a day," Hanna said.

For now, zoo officials are keeping the zoo's three elephants away from direct human contact.

The father of James said that his daughter loved animals and was always careful when working with them.

"I am so surprised that anything happened because she so concerned with safety that was, that was her first priority was safety," Ron James said.

He said they spoke about the risks of her job just after Christmas.