Elephant keeper Pamela Orsi was killed when she was trampled by an elephant, and not because she tried to intervene between two battling pachyderms as was first believed, officials at the San Diego Wild Animal Park said Friday.
According to four persons who witnessed the incident Thursday afternoon and later met with park officials, the 27-year-old Ramona woman was tending to one elephant and was caught unawares when a second one knocked her down and stepped on her head, officials said.
It was earlier believed that Orsi had tried to break up a fight between two female Asian elephants, Alice and Cha Cha.
But park officials are now unsure which two elephants were involved in the incident, since videotape shot by a tourist just minutes before the incident show Orsi with yet a third elephant.
Park officials say the aggressive action that killed Orsi came suddenly.
"Based on eyewitness accounts, we know (Orsi) was next to an elephant when a larger elephant on Pamela's opposite side suddenly turned and, without warning, attacked the other elephant," said Tom Hanscom, public relations manager for the park.
"In so doing, Pamela was caught in between the two elephants and was knocked to the ground. As the larger elephant followed through on the attack, that elephant trampled Pamela on the ground," Hanscom said.
"By the eyewitness reports, the attacking elephant was not attacking Pamela, and Pamela had not stepped in or purposely placed herself in harm's way."
The names of witnesses were not released by the park. The state's division of Occupational Safety and Health is investigating, but a report is not due for several days.
On Friday, the park canceled all elephant shows and public feedings for an indefinite time.
A visitor to the park Thursday, Olecte Vesce, told the Escondido Times Advocate that the attacking elephant was "hostile and jealous" and "like a mad dog."
But some experts say that elephant disagreements do not suddenly turn violent, but rather they gradually develop in intensity--and the animal keeper should have recognized the situation and gotten out of the yard.
"I've never seen an animal just put his head down and run across the yard and smash into another one. Normally, there would have to be some sort of buildup," said John Collette, zoological curator at Dickerson Park in Springfield, Mo., home to nine elephants.
Hanscom said it was unclear how violent the attack was.
"A very light attack, a very simple move of one elephant to push another, would not be a major attack if you're considering elephant against elephant, but you could easily injure a frail human caught in between," Hanscom said.
In January, a veteran animal keeper at Oakland's Knowland Park Zoo was attacked and killed by an African male elephant, apparently without provocation.
Orsi's death focuses renewed attention on a debate among elephant keepers nationwide over the management of elephants. Although most zookeepers physically interact with elephants while working inside their compounds, a growing number of zoos have moved towards "hands-off" management of the animals.
Some animal experts believe keepers are put unnecessarily in danger by interacting too closely with elephants, who commonly become aggressive towards one another as they establish the herd's pecking order.
"Every time you begin hands-on management of an animal as large and complex and unpredictable as an elephant, you're inviting the kind of disaster that has occurred," said John Grandy, vice president of the Humane Society of the United States.
Grandy supports a hands-off style of management where keepers are never in a compound with elephants. Instead, the animals are guided into special compartments for maintenance, where keepers can safely get close to the elephants, which can weigh as much as 6 tons. Staying out of the compound is also said to be more natural.
"When you have keepers actually going into the compounds, they essentially have to become the dominant member of that herd, and if we are really going to set up a good captive situation for breeding, we have to back ourselves out of the social structure and let the animals set up their own," said David Robinett, assistant director of the San Francisco Zoo.
The San Francisco Zoo last January completed a $500,000 renovation of its elephant facility that, when in full use, will allow trainers to get close to the animals without having to be in the compound.
The Humane Society argues that a hands-on management style invariably leads to abuse.
"You cannot do hands-on management and not be hitting the elephant," said Lisa Landres, a field investigator for the Humane Society. "When you are in a hands-on situation, that elephant must obey and comply with very strict and rigid rules, or else people's lives are in danger."
Landres also argues that other animals receive hands-off care, and the methods should not be difficult to transfer to elephants.