A witness to the fatal accident at Franklin Zoo says the elephant was triggered to kneel down, crushing her keeper, by what appeared to be a misinterpreted circus command: "down".

"Put me down, Mila," the keeper, Dr Helen Schofield, was heard saying as she patted the elephant's head.

Mila obeyed by going down on her knees - crushing Dr Schofield.

"The elephant didn't attack the lady. The elephant was in a circus mode. It was following commands," said the zoo visitor, who did not want to be named.

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He said the elephant had seemed to him to have acted as if she were performing a circus trick.

Dr Schofield, Franklin Zoo's owner and director, was killed on Anzac Day after two years' nursing the animal with the hope of getting her into an overseas sanctuary.

Authorities and animal welfare groups are now working out the future for the elephant, who was born in Africa before being taken into zoos in London and Honolulu. She later spent 30 years in a New Zealand circus.

The witness said he wanted to dispel any impression that Mila had any problems under Dr Schofield's care.

An electric fence, which was earlier raised as the possible source of Mila's agitation on the day, was not near the pair, he said. And Dr Schofield had not run - she slowly backed away once she realised that being in the enclosure was not safe.

He did not know why the elephant picked up Dr Schofield, he said.

The witness, for whom English is a second language, gave a clarifying statement to police about what happened.

Auckland Zoo senior vet Richard Jakob-Hoff said elephants were intelligent animals with all the range of emotions that people had.

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But their sheer size made them dangerous, and Auckland Zoo's female elephant, Burma, had been taught her instructions in Hindi to avoid inadvertent commands, Dr Jakob-Hoff said.

Mila was born in the wild in 1973, but at nine months she was taken into captivity at London Zoo. She ended up at Honolulu Zoo for a brief period before the Whirling Brothers Circus brought her to New Zealand in 1978.

Her then-owner, Tony Ratcliffe, said Mila had been bullied by another elephant in Honolulu.

Despite receiving criticism from animal activist groups, Mr Ratcliffe recalls positively the elephant's 30 years' touring with the circus under her stage name Jumbo.

When Mila was retired Mr Ratcliffe tried to get Mila into a zoo here or in Australia but could not find a space.

So she spent two years with another circus as a "walk-on" special guest - without performing tricks - before Dr Schofield was able to take her into Franklin Zoo in late 2009.

Dr Schofield bought the zoo in 2005 when it was in need of a new owner and she saw its animals wanting for better care.

She told Radio New Zealand two years ago that Mr Ratcliffe had been "fantastic" during Mila's transition to the Franklin Zoo.

The elephant was described as "jumpy" when she arrived but is said to have become pacified under Dr Schofield's care.

Auckland Zoo staff are helping care for Mila, while the SPCA and the Ministry for Agriculture and Fisheries are trying to work out her future.

Dr Schofield had been in talks with California-based sanctuary Paws, which said Mila was still welcome.