SAN DIEGO — A 27-year-old animal keeper was killed Thursday afternoon at the San Diego Wild Animal Park after she apparently became caught between two battling female Asian elephants, authorities said.
Pamela C. Orsi of Ramona, who had been an elephant keeper at the park for one year, died of extensive head injuries. A zookeeper for six years, she had worked with elephants for the last four years, including three at the Bronx Zoo in New York.
Orsi's death is the first of its kind in the Wild Animal Park's 18-year history. The last such death at the San Diego Zoo, also run by the San Diego Zoological Society, was in the early 1940s, when a zookeeper was killed by a leopard, said Jeff Jouett, spokesman for the society.
There were no witnesses, but park officials said Orsi apparently stepped between two female Asian elephants to break up a fight. Another elephant keeper, Dusty Janeke, was in the same compound at the time and overheard the encounter, said Tom Hanscom, public relations manager for the park.
Hanscom said Orsi and Janeke were in the three-acre compound as part of routine, daily monitoring of the elephants.
Hanscom said the elephants involved are generally mild-mannered, but that contests over the pecking order of the herd were common. This incident may have been one in which Alice, who has been on loan to the park from the Rio Grande Zoo in Albuquerque, N.M., for the last two years, and Cha Cha were vying for a higher rung in the pecking order.
"Usually, it's just a knock on the trunk or someone tries to steal someone's food, but sometimes it gets out of hand," Hanscom said. "They can hit with the force that would be a shove to another elephant, but could kill a human being."
"It's the job of the zookeeper to step in and make sure the elephants do not injure themselves," Hanscom said.
Jouett said that over the last two weeks Alice had become more aggressive toward the other eight female elephants in her enclosure. It was unclear, he said, whether Alice was trying to promote herself within the elephant hierarchy or was fending off a challenge by Cha Cha.
It was also unclear Thursday, given the absence of witnesses, just how quickly--and with what technique--Orsi intervened.
"It's highly likely that Pam stepped in to protect one of the elephants," Jouett said.
The 5-foot, 10-inch Orsi, like all elephant keepers at the park, had only a three-foot wooden stick with a metal hook to guide and prod the elephants, Hanscom said.
Hanscom said elephant keepers rely primarily on verbal commands to control the four-ton animals.