How shy Mr Shuffles nearly became a killer
Thankful ... Lucy Melo. Photo: Peter Hardin/Taronga Zoo
A Taronga Zoo keeper has revealed how she headed for the barn exit after sensing a "behavioural change" in a young elephant moments before he used his trunk to crush her against a bollard.
Lucy Melo suffered severe injuries when the two-year-old elephant calf Pathi Harn, formerly known as Mr Shuffles, crushed her in October.
In a letter released today, Ms Melo has told for the first time how the incident occurred, and how the previously shy Pathi had days earlier shown changes in behaviour, trying to push around a fully grown female elephant on heat that was three times his size.
Mishap ... Mr Shuffles returns to the elephant enclosure at Taronga Zoo. Photo: Jacky Ghossein
Of the day of the accident, Ms Melo said she had been engaging Pathi in a training session in the barn.
"He was enjoying it as usual," she said. "As the session was coming to an end, I asked for one simple final behaviour. He offered me a slightly different behaviour than the one I had asked.
"I asked him again for the correct version. When he did not respond, I sensed a behavioural change in him and realised he was thinking of challenging me.
"I immediately tried to redirect his thoughts by asking him for a different behaviour, and at the same time I was making my way out of the stall. Unfortunately, just as I was almost out, he raised his trunk and pinned me against one of the metal bollards.
"His trunk on my chest took my breath away, which made it impossible for me to talk and tell him to stop."
Ms Melo said her co-workers immediately reacted, and stepped in to move the young elephant away from her. She said he was completely fine afterwards, and acted as though nothing had happened.
She added that while juvenile male elephants will often challenge and test their boundaries as they mature, zoo keepers were taken aback to see it happen in a calf as young as Pathi.
She recounted how the elephant's difficult birth - he had been declared dead in the womb - and shy nature had seen him at the bottom of the elephant hierarchy.
While he excelled at training, and loved interacting with zoo keepers, he lacked confidence, Ms Melo said.
"He was much more cautious than our other calves, and required a lot of reassurance and encouragement. He would even become anxious if a new toy was introduced to him! Because of this he had low status in the herd and remained at the bottom of the hierarchy."
However, Pathi gave warning that his shy nature was changing in the lead-up to the incident, Ms Melo said, when one of 13-year-old female elephant Tang Mo was coming into mating season.
"We noticed Pathi taking quite an interest in her," Ms Melo wrote.
"They were constantly sparring and playing in the pool... For Tang Mo, it was all in fun as she would still have considered him a calf, and not a potential mate!
"We watched as Pathi and Tang Mo were playing in the pool one day, and Tang Mo attempted to get out of the pool. Pathi did not want her to leave, so he challenged her by blocking her exit from the pool, and actually managed to push her back in! We were all astonished to see this, as Tang Mo is over 3000 kilos and Pathi is only 1000 kilos."
After being crushed, Ms Melo remained conscious when paramedics first arrived, but then lapsed into unconsciousness and had a cardiac arrest for about five minutes.
However, she is determined to get back to work.
"Pathi continues to do well and is now being worked in a more protected management style that is better suited to up and coming bull elephants!
"As for me, all I can do now is to wait for some fractured ribs to heal. I am so looking forward to getting back to work, and seeing all the elephants again, especially Pathi Harn!"
In a statement WorkCover said it was continuing to work with Taronga Zoo to improve safety following the incident.
It said: "Due to the nature of the incident, WorkCover’s examination of this matter will take some time to complete.
"The priority for WorkCover continues to be that the zoo implements appropriate controls and practices to prevent a reoccurrence of the events that took place."
Ms Melo thanked medical staff, friends and family for their support, and in particular husband and senior elephant keeper Gary Miller.
"He has been my rock, and I appreciate all those who supported him through all of this as well."