A former circus elephant who fatally crushed its keeper yesterday lived most of its life in a small trailer and had "psychological damage,'' says an animal rights group.

The group that campaigned for 20 years to have Mila, formerly called Jumbo, released from the circus succeeded three years ago.

Director of Save Animals from Exploitation (SAFE) Hans Kriek worked closely with Mila, and said he had also worked with Helen Schofield, who died yesterday, to find a better home for the elephant.

"We campaigned to get Jumbo away from a life of solitary confinement stuck in a trailer,'' he told Radio New Zealand this morning


Dr Schofield had planned to visit a Californian rehabilitation centre for former circus and zoo animals called Performance Animal Welfare Society, or PAWS.

"That's the key thing with elephants, they need to live with other elephants because they are such social animals,'' he said.

"We knew she wouldn't be perfectly fine here because there are no other African elephants in New Zealand.''

"We always knew Franklin zoo was only going to be a temporary solution. Helen was training her to get her ready to accept being in a crate so she could be transported,'' said Kriek.

Jumbo, now Mila, had been owned by New Zealand circus owner Tony Ratcliffe but had been sold to Loritz circus which had plans to build an enclosure for her.

Loritz circus relinquished responsibility for Mila and signed her over to the SPCA, after which she was transferred to Franklin Zoo as a temporary home.

Mr Ratcliffe told Radio New Zealand today he was the only person who knew how to handle Mila, and Franklin zoo had been ignorant of the elephant's capabilities.

"I am the last line of true elephant handlers - I doubt if Auckland zoo will be able to handle this situation. Their elephant handlers are not equipped to handle an elephant like this,'' he said.


"Loritz Circus were meant to build a place for her and it didn't eventuate. They dumped her on the SPCA who held her standing in her own faeces, urine and hay for three days until they called me to help. I got that situation resurrected and took her to the zoo that didn't want me. Then they rang and said we need your help to get her out of the trailer. Now I have offered help again - they've got no handler that can get her out and do anything with her - I don't even know if I can do anything with her because they have been messing with her.''

He claimed he never had a problem with the elephant.

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

SAFE's Mr Kriek said there was a long record of keepers of elephants either in circuses of zoos who had been killed.

"It's very tragic really,'' he said.