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Zoo to remain closed while death probed

Published: 5:34AM Thursday April 26, 2012 Source: ONE News/Fairfax

Franklin Zoo will remain closed indefinitely while the Labour Department investigates the killing of a zookeeper by an elephant.

It is understood 42-year-old Helen Schofield was crushed to death when the 3.1-tonne elephant picked her up in its trunk and lifted her into the air around 4.30pm yesterday.

Police have wound up their inquiries into the incident and the Labour Department and the Coroner are now investigating what happened.

While the zoo has decided to stay closed pending the outcome of that investigation, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and staff from Auckland Zoo will look after the zoo's animals until another operator is appointed to replace Schofield.

Schofield, who owned and operated the zoo, had spent two years nursing Mila back to health after its 28 years with the Weber Bros Circus. 

In an interview with TVNZ7 programme Animal Academy in February this year, Schofield said the animal was often shackled up to 20 hours a day when she was with the circus.

She had been in the process of arranging for the animal to be sent to a sanctuary in America and in May 2010  wrote of her enthusiasm in working with the elephant.

"It is a tremendous privilege to take care of Jumbo (Mila), I feel personally humbled and flattered by the big ear-flapping purrs she gives me as a greeting when I return to see her from other activities in the sanctuary.

"She is so affectionate and responsive. It will be a joyful day to see her develop friends of the elephant kind in the future. This is a short way off now."

The incident has been described as a "tragic accident," however zoological consultant Peter Stroud, who worked with Schofield to help her prepare for Mila's arrival, said elephants never do anything by accident

Stroud said it is a "rule of thumb" in captive elephant management to never regard an attack as purely an accident, as elephants are "very deliberate" creatures.

Stroud says something must have disturbed Mila and she would have known what she was doing.

Just two-and-a-half hours before her death, Schofield revealed details of the elephant's troubled emotional state during a talk to a group of 50 zoogoers - including a Fairfax reporter - while standing in front of Mila's enclosure

A former helper at the circus, who wants to be known only as Richard, told Newstalk ZB Mila had always been deemed difficult by experts.

He said one international circus trainer who used to have 20 elephants in the ring with him said he would never trust that elephant.

Where now for Mila?

Auckland SPCA executive director Bob Kerridge said there were now three options: the elephant was sent to a sanctuary - "an expensive option", but the "ideal" one; someone replaced Schofield at the zoo and continued to care for the elephant; or "the worst situation" was that Mila would be put down.

"We're dealing with a very big animal, a wild animal, and we're dealing with an animal that really shouldn't be on its own," Kerridge said.

"It would be really nice if we could get through that dream of Helen's and get [Mila] to the sanctuary."

Kerridge said the decision would be made by the zoo and SPCA with input from specialists. He was already talking to specialists overseas.

He said he did not believe Mila had attacked Schofield. "It would appear to be a tragic accident," he said.

Mila arrived at Franklin Zoo two years ago after she was handed over to the SPCA. Schofield had nursed her back to health and Kerridge said she had "done a good job".

Former owner of the circus, Tony Ratcliffe, says he is the best person to look after Mila now.

But Save Animals From Exploitation (SAFE) spokesperson Hans Kriek said Mila was "psychologically damaged" after spending more than 30 years in solitary confinement.

"He [Ratcliffe] was the person who kept her solitary confined for 30 years, chained into a trailer. So he should never have anything to do with Mila from now on," said Kriek.

Panic attacks

Mila would frequently have panic attacks at night and Schofield, who lived on site, would comfort the animal by speaking with it through a safety wall. The elephant had apparently become more settled in recent weeks.

Schofield said Mila would "trumpet" when the nearby quarry would do blasting, but recently in front of a group of 5 year olds, rather than running to the other end of her enclosure to do it, had stayed, looked at the vet and the kids, and "told the quarry off" from her spot in front of the group.

It had been hoped the elephant would eventually be moved to an elephant sanctuary in California to live out its years. It is unclear what will happen to Mila now.

During Schofield's talk the elephant appeared friendly and was rubbing its eyes with its trunk, and spraying dust at its trainer. It did not appear agitated.

A woman who lives in a property neighbouring the zoo said she noticed activity at the zoo when ambulances arrived about 4.30pm.

Fire and police also attended.

"We look out and see the elephant every day," the woman said. "I don't think it's very friendly. It hasn't had a very happy life."

Kerridge said he was devastated by Schofield's death.

The SPCA had been involved in choosing the zoo as a suitable retirement spot for Mila and had checked on her wellbeing frequently, including about six months ago, he said. Inspectors had been happy with her integration into zoo life.

Kerridge said Schofield was "totally in charge" of Mila and a "very passionate vet". The elephant had been her own personal interest and sole charge, and she had been nursing it back to health.

A Labour Department spokeswoman said last night it had been advised of the fatality and was making preliminary inquiries . The death had also been referred to the coroner.

The SPCA had expressed concerns about the elephant's physical and mental well-being before Mila went into the zoo's care.

When Mila was handed over to the SPCA in 2009, circus owner Harry Weber said Mila had enjoyed a busy career and was always a crowd favourite. The intention had been to retire her for the second half of her life for some peace and quiet.