Elephant That Crushed Woman Handler Gets Reprieve

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

ByMatt Gutman and Jessica Hopper
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.

Elephant Attacks Handler At Zoo

This isn't the first time that zoo animals have attacked their trainers. At Ohio's Toledo Zoo, an elephant charged at his handler repeatedly in July of last year.

The trainer suffered life threatening lung injuries, but survived.

In 2007, wildlife biologist Jeff Corwin was attacked by an elephant while filming a CNN show in Cambodia. Corwin suffered no broken bones.

There have been nearly 20 attacks by wild animals at parks over the past decade. Just this weekend, a pair of crazed chimps bit off the fingers of a zookeeper at Riverside Discovery Center in Nebraska. The zookeeper lost two fingers.

Dawn Brancheau, an expert handler of Orca whales, was dragged underwater and drowned by the killer whaleTillikum at SeaWorld as hundreds watched in February 2010.

Like Brancheau, Stephanie James died doing exactly what family members said she loved the most: working with wild animals.

"If I were to sit here and tell you there wouldn't be another accident at a zoo tomorrow, I'd be lying to you. It's our type of business. It's like an astronaut or a Nascar driver," Hanna said.

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