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Zookeeper's death: Elephant was in chute, acted differently since other elephant's death

By Linda Russell, lrussell@ky3.com
Gene Hartley, ghartley@schurz.com
Published On: Dec 24 2013 09:50:57 AM CST
Updated On: Oct 13 2013 11:38:12 PM CDT

An elephant that crushed a zookeeper on Friday morning had acted differently since another elephant died a week ago.

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -

The city of Springfield released more details early Friday evening about the death of a zookeeper at Dickerson Park Zoo on Friday morning.

Edited news release, 5:55 p.m.:

At the time of the incident, approximately 8:45 a.m., zookeepers were in the elephant barn, moving a 41-year-old female elephant, Patience, from the barn stalls into a chute.

The chute functions as a corridor connecting the barn to the yard.  The chute is about 12 feet long, with adjustable walls which can made wide or be narrow.  A narrow chute is useful for zookeepers to hold the animal when performing an inspection, which takes place at least twice a day.

Elephant chute

The chute’s walls are made of 6-inch round metal bars, about 10 feet tall, spaced about 15 inches apart — wide enough for a human to walk through, but narrow enough to restrain an elephant.

Elephants are moved through the chute several times a day, and zookeepers reported there was nothing unusual about this particular movement from the barn.

Zookeepers reported that Patience’s behavior had been hesitant and submissive since the Oct. 4 death of Connie (Pinky), the elephant herd’s matriarch. They were watching her carefully, because of this behavior. Three zookeepers were present; a minimum of two zookeepers are required to be present when approaching the protective barrier.

The morning of the incident, Patience hesitated in the chute, and elephant manager John Phillip Bradford, 62, was coaxing her forward.  Bradford leaned into the chute, reaching for her with a guide.  The animal suddenly lunged forward, knocking Bradford down, into the chute. The animal then crushed Bradford against the floor, killing him instantly.

The other zookeepers moved quickly to pull the animal away from Bradford. The whole incident took place in a matter of seconds.

Bradford’s actions were consistent with zoo policies and AZA Guidelines for Elephant Management and Care.

The Springfield Police Department was onsite immediately after the incident and conducted an initial investigation. When finalized, their report will be made available to the City’s internal investigation team, which will include Parks Administration, Dickerson Park Zoo Management, City Safety staff from the Human Resources Department, and any additional resources needed. In addition to the City’s internal investigation, there will be other investigations by appropriate oversight agencies, including the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Accreditation Commission.

Dickerson Park Zoo is internationally recognized for its elephant program. The zoo is the recipient of the 1997 Edward H. Bean Award from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, honoring the zoo’s elephant breeding program.

Dickerson Park Zoo’s highest priority right now is supporting staff members, friends and family through the tragedy of losing a staff member.

The combined events of losing the elephant herd’s matriarch, Connie (Pinky) to kidney disease Oct. 4, and now the death of elephant manager John Bradford, have had a tremendous impact upon the zoo staff. Zoo officials respectfully request privacy of staff members, friends and family.

No additional information will be released today.

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Previous reporting:

An elephant charged and killed an animal keeper at Dickerson Park Zoo on Friday morning.  Zoo directors say he was senior zookeeper and elephant manager John Bradford, 62. 

John Bradford

Bradford worked at the zoo for 30 years.  Zookeepers say Patience, a 41-year-old female elephant, got aggressive with Bradford and charged.  Other workers were also in the barn.

At approximately 8:45 a.m., according to a news release, Springfield Police and emergency responders were dispatched to Dickerson Park Zoo in response to the accident in the zoo's elephant container.  Bradford and other staff were handling an elephant when the accident occurred. 

Zookeeper killed: John Bradford

Bradford, a 30-year-employee of the zoo, died as a result of his injuries.  His family, who are outside Springfield, have been notified.  No other zoo employees were injured.

“This is very sad day for the Zoo family, as well as our community as a whole,” said Mike Crocker, assistant parks director and zoo director.

Chaplains are assisting staff, and the zoo remains open to visitors. 

The Springfield Police Department is investigating.  Barb Theriot, area director of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration says her agency will not investigate this case because it has no jurisdiction over state, county, and municipal workplaces.

More from a news release from the City of Springfield:

Dickerson Park Zoo has notified the proper authorities of the incident, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, (USDA), which issues animal exhibit licenses, and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, through which the zoo has had full accreditation since 1986.

Dickerson Park Zoo follows all AZA standards for elephant management and care.  Elephants are the only species the AZA has developed specific guidelines for elephant care, and Dickerson Park Zoo’s elephant handling program, as well as the zoo as a whole, was most recently accredited by the AZA in September 2012.

The AZA noted in the report:

“The zoo’s indoor and outdoor elephant areas far exceed the recommended stall and habitat space. The facilities and program provide a complex and stimulating physical and social environment.  During the inspection visit, natural behavioral activities, positive social interactions and appropriate activity levels were witnessed with all of the animals.”

Zookeepers had been keeping a close eye on Patience and the other female elephant, Moola, following the death on Oct. 4 of the zoo’s matriarch elephant, Pinky, who died as a result of kidney disease.  No disciplinary action will be taken with the animal.  The animal will not be euthanized.

The zoo is focusing on offering support to staff members, who are grieving the loss of a co-worker.

“We’re unbelievably sad right now, “ said Bob Belote, director of the Springfield-Greene County Parks Department.  “Our Parks family and our Dickerson Park Zoo family is very close, so a loss like this is really painful for all of us.”

Patience the elephant

Zoo directors say Patience will not be euthanized.  This photo is from April 2013.

Bradford talked to a Springfield News-Leader reporter in 1999 about his work at the zoo.  At the time, his title was animal health technician.

"Some animals won't have anything to do with you," Bradford said, describing how animals aren't always fond of their keepers.

In the News-Leader report, Bradford said he worked with animals who have problems.  His responsibilities at the time included "managing the zoo's hospital and acting as a liaison between the keepers and the two veterinarians that serve the zoo," the report said.

Bradford said in the report that zoo employees need to have compassion and empathy for the animals, and must display confidence to the animals.

"They know if you mean business.  You can't hesitate or be insecure," he told the News-Leader reporter. 

He also talked about enjoying a variety of experiences in his job.

"I learn something new every day.  Every day is different," Bradford said in 1999.

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Statement from Association of Zoos and Aquariums Executive Director Kristin Vehrs:

“We extend our deepest sympathies to our friends and colleagues at the Dickerson Park Zoo and to the family of John Bradford for their tragic loss.

The safety of staff and visitors at AZA-accredited facilities is of the utmost importance.  In due course, there will be investigations by regulatory agencies and by the AZA Accreditation Commission, but right now we’re focused on comforting our colleagues as they cope with this tragic situation.”

For reference, the AZA Standards for Elephant Management and Care can be accessed here: AZA Accreditation Standards and Related Policies (pages 26-55).

The AZA policy on Maximizing Occupational Safety of Elephant Care Professionals at AZA-accredited and AZA-certified Facilities can be found here.

Founded in 1924, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the advancement of zoos and aquariums in the areas of conservation, education, science, and recreation.

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The staff at the Springfield-Greene County Library District contributed to this report by finding the News-Leader report from May 16, 1999, that quoted Bradford.Elephant chute at Dickerson Park Zoo