THE zookeeper critically injured by a Taronga Zoo elephant is known for her unusually intense relationship with the animals and had told colleagues she could talk with them telepathically.
Lucy Melo's heart stopped for five minutes after she was crushed against a bollard yesterday by a one-tonne young male elephant, Pathi Harn, nicknamed Mr Shuffles.
Ms Melo remained in a critical but stable condition in Royal North Shore Hospital last night, with chest and back injuries.
At 11.30am she was in a barn-like enclosure with Pathi Harn, the Asian elephant who had been hailed a ''miracle baby'' by the zoo after pre-birth scans had shown him to be dead in his mother's womb.
Ms Melo was teaching the young male to wash himself when it ''challenged'' her, forcing her against a pole, said the zoo's director and chief executive, Cameron Kerr. Two other keepers heard Ms Melo cry out, moved the elephant away and called an ambulance.
She was conscious when paramedics arrived but then suffered a cardiac arrest, and it took five minutes to restart her heart, said acting Inspector Andrew Wood of the Ambulance Service of NSW. Taronga Zoo and WorkCover are investigating the incident.
''I am very, very concerned about the staff member that has been hurt, as are all of the team at the zoo,'' Mr Kerr said. ''It is a very difficult time for us.''
Former zookeepers and colleagues told the Herald Ms Melo was known for talking passionately about her intense emotional connection with elephants.
With her partner, Gary Miller - who is also a senior elephant keeper at the zoo - she had travelled to Thailand in 2004 to select elephants for Taronga, and lived with them while they underwent quarantine.
''She believed she could communicate with them telepathically,'' a former colleague said.
When Taronga's elephants were brought over from Thailand, she told the Herald: ''They were very thin, their skin was hanging off them and they had bad muscle tone. I know they have a better life here. They've become my family.''
She has described herself as ''obsessed'' with elephants, and said her home was full of elephant figurines, elephant-related books and art, and a handmade elephant saddle.
Ms Melo has been with the zoo since 2004, and had previously worked in the US at Houston Zoo, Rio Grande Zoo and Disney's Animal Kingdom. ''There's a very close bond between our staff and the animals,'' Mr Kerr said.
While working with big animals had inherent risks, there was no risk to the public, he said. Some people may have witnessed the incident through viewing panels set into the elephant's barn.
''Our elephants are in the paddocks, they're calm and comfortable. I can ensure you that Taronga's elephant programs are… world standard.''
Taronga Zoo keeps eight Asian elephants, five females and three males.
Pathi Harn was nicknamed Mr Shuffles by zoo staff because of his early walking attempts - like an old man shuffling around in ill-fitting slippers - before he was officially named Pathi Harn, which means ''miracle'' in Thai.