Vet tripped fleeing charging elephant

By Andrew Koubaridis

Two men take a floral tribute to Franklin Zoo, which has also received messages of support and donations. Photo / Dean Purcell
Two men take a floral tribute to Franklin Zoo, which has also received messages of support and donations. Photo / Dean Purcell

Visitors and staff watched in horror as zoo keeper Dr Helen Schofield tried to run from the elephant that killed her, only to trip close to the door and be dragged back inside and picked up by the elephant's trunk.

New details have emerged of the horrifying last few minutes of Dr Schofield's life and the frantic effort to save her.

She was killed late Wednesday afternoon when 39-year-old African elephant Mila picked her up after she went in to calm it down.

The Herald has been told the animal received a shock after it brushed its trunk against an electric fence that secures its enclosure.

It's understood Dr Schofield had been in the enclosure just before the incident and had been speaking to zoo-goers about Mila.

She had left the enclosure, but went back inside with a bucket of fruit to try to calm it down after someone reported the elephant suddenly jumped at least 1m sideways after the electric shock.

Mila put her head down and advanced, slowly at first, but then with increasing speed. Dr Schofield turned and ran - but tripped about a metre from the enclosure's exit.

The Herald understands Mila, who is estimated to weigh three tonnes, used her trunk to pull her back by the leg, wrapped her trunk around the vet's midsection, and picked her up.

Onlookers said Dr Schofield was able to speak and calmly called the command to put her down.

Mila eventually knelt and pushed her trunk down on a bank in the enclosure, as Dr Schofield asked to be let go.

When Mila finally released her she was still talking and was seen to move. Mila backed away but then moved towards her again and repeatedly brushed her trunk up against her - and she didn't move again.

Franklin Zoo staff members entered the enclosure and used food and hay to lure Mila away.

When an advanced paramedic arrived soon after, Dr Schofield was dead.

Mila had been known to be aggressive and unsettled in the past. Dr Schofield was the only one who would enter her enclosure and was said to have developed a bond with the elephant who become more passive under her care.

In a statement yesterday, staff from Franklin Zoo said there had been many messages of support and donations had already started to come in.

"Helen was incredibly passionate about the welfare of animals, and your sentiments are a reflection of how giving and selfless she was. Special thanks goes to the team from Auckland Zoo who have been a big help ensuring the animals continue receiving the care they need," the statement on the zoo's Facebook site said.

Dr Schofield was owner and director of the Franklin Zoo, where she had set up a charitable trust to take on exotic animals in need of new homes.

Zoo workers were being assisted by colleagues from Auckland Zoo but no decisions had been made last night on what would happen to Mila.

A friend of Dr Schofield's said her family didn't bear any ill-feeling towards the animal, but zoo staff would have to consult the SPCA and Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries before any final decision was made.

The day before her death, she spoke to the director of animal rights organisation Safe NZ about her optimism for Mila's future and her hopes to eventually send her to a bigger sanctuary.

Mila's former circus owner, Tony Ratcliffe, who called her Jumbo, yesterday said even the most tame and best elephants could kill and maim people, and that could happen no matter how they were treated.

The elephant went to the zoo in 2009 from the Weber Bros Circus after she was handed over to the SPCA.

"Many reasons can be found for accidents and elephant attacks.

"I do not and will not subscribe to the theory they don't attack unless they have been mistreated," he said.

On Radio New Zealand yesterday, he rejected the suggestion the elephant had struggled to come to terms with living in the zoo after life in the circus.

He said he never had any trouble with the animal.

"My children have grown up around her ... she's been a beautiful elephant.

"She's been messed around with by people who have no knowledge of them at all," he said.

- NZ Herald