A Close Call: Salient Points of a Serious Elephant Keeper Injury by an Adult African Elephant (Loxodonta africana)
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2001
Wynona Shellabarger, DVM; Timothy A. Reichard, DVM, MS
Toledo Zoological Gardens, Toledo, OH, USA


An experienced elephant keeper was seriously injured by an adult female African elephant (Loxodonta africana) under his care on 3 November 2000. He sustained several broken bones, and his recovery period will be minimally, eight to 10 months. He narrowly escaped with his life. The salient points surrounding this incident are given below.

The keeper was working the elephant through a two to three-foot-wide gap in a hydraulic door and was pulled through that gap into the stall with the elephant. The keeper was working alone with no back-up.

There is a Toledo Zoo Elephant Management Policy for elephant handling and management in place, drawn up by the Elephant Management Committee (consisting of the elephant manager, deputy director, senior veterinarian, mammal curator, and executive director) and approved by the Toledo Zoological Society Board of Trustees. It was in place at the time of the injury.

The Toledo Zoo has had a free contact training system for its elephants since 1982, with no prior serious injuries. The two-keeper policy for handling the animals has been in place for 10 years. This policy was relaxed by the elephant keeper staff due to internal personnel problems between some of the elephant keeper staff creating conflict.

The elephant that inflicted the injury has been in the program at the Toledo Zoo since 1986. She is 19 years old and weighs approximately 8100 pounds. She is one of two adult females currently housed at the zoo.

The female elephant in question had been successfully artificially inseminated the month before the injury occurred and was pregnant at the time of the injury. The keeper had treated the surgical wound below her anus (a result of the insemination procedure) and was offering a treat to the animal by placing it in her mouth through the door opening. She clamped down on his arm and he was pulled into the stall, where he sustained several serious injuries before escaping.

The Toledo Zoo has had a hydraulic elephant restraint device (ERD) in place for several years, but it malfunctioned frequently and was installed in an outside sand yard, so was only usable in warm weather conditions. Due to its unreliable performance, it had not been used for any procedures since its installation.

Events and Policy Changes Made as a Result of the Incident

The incident was not reported to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) until approximately one month later when another incident (sloth bear death) was being investigated. A USDA inspection occurred from December 18–20, 2000 and the only noncompliant item cited in relation to the incident was 2.40 (b)(1) under Veterinary Care, stating that the ERD could not be used by the attending veterinarian in its present location (outside) and condition. As a result, plans for enclosing the ERD and servicing it for use are now being implemented.

It was also clarified by the USDA investigator that incidents involving human injury by elephants only fall under USDA Animal Welfare regulations in cases involving potential injury to members of the visiting public (vs. employees).

The remaining elephant keeper staff and the mammal curator met immediately after the incident and reviewed the facts of the incident, identified mistakes and problem areas, assessed the elephant for signs of aggressive tendencies not seen before, and through consensus, agreed to continue with a free contact system of elephant handling. This information was not distributed or discussed with other members of the Elephant Management Committee specifically until two months later. The policy now stands that a meeting of the Elephant Management Committee and a member of the human resources department will convene within one week of an elephant keeper injury to review the incident, and that all statements, memos, and recommendations related to such incidents will be routed to all members of the Committee as they are generated.

The Elephant Management Policy was reviewed, and the two-keeper system is now mandatory. No elephant contact will occur at all unless the second qualified keeper is within safe response distance.

The Elephant Management Committee will now meet quarterly instead of once per year.

The Elephant Safety Assessment Team (consisting of the elephant manager, elephant keeper staff, a veterinarian, and the zoo’s safety coordinator) will meet twice per year. Using the AZA Guidelines for Elephant Management and Care, they will evaluate the safety of the elephant program and report findings and recommendations to the Elephant Management Committee.


Speaker Information
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Timothy A. Reichard, DVM, MS
Toledo Zoological Gardens
Toledo, OH, USA

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