A zoo owner was crushed to death in an elephant’s trunk after the animal she had spent two years nursing back to health picked her up and lifted her into the air, New Zealand animal welfare authorities say.
Helen Schofield, the owner and director of Franklin Zoo, 56 kilometres south of Auckland, was caring for 3.1-tonne Mila, formerly a circus elephant known as Jumbo, when tragedy struck.
Emergency services were called to the zoo about 4.30pm yesterday after receiving reports that Ms Schofield had been killed when Mila picked her up and crushed her.
Auckland SPCA executive director Bob Kerridge said he did not believe Mila had attacked Ms Schofield, who was also a vet.
"It would appear to be a tragic accident," he said.
Just two-and-a-half hours before her death, Ms Schofield revealed details of the elephant's troubled emotional state during a talk to a group of 50 zoo visitors - including a Fairfax reporter - while standing in front of Mila's enclosure.
The elephant was known to suffer frequent panic attacks at night and Ms Schofield, who lived on site, would comfort the animal by speaking with it through a safety wall.
The SPCA had expressed concerns about the elephant's physical and mental wellbeing before Mila went into the zoo's care.
Emotional scenes unfolded outside the zoo last night as Mila's former handler Tony Ratcliffe demanded to see the elephant.
"As soon as I see the situation, I'll know if it was a deliberate elephant attack or not," he told New Zealand media.
"Elephants choose their friends and when they attack, they attack ... I'm just gutted. A lady has lost her life, it is a tragedy."
Mr Ratcliffe told Radio New Zealand his offers of help to the zoo had been dismissed, and he was angry the elephant had not been treated well since moving to the wildlife centre.
Auckland Zoo worker Grace Honney was today assessing the elephant, which she said was fine and not sedated.
A Franklin Zoo staff member said Mila needed "a lot of support and care now".
The zoo operators are expected to make a media statement later today.
Ms Schofield had been working with the elephant to get it into a healthy physical and psychological state so it could be sent to live in a sanctuary with other elephants, Mr Kerridge said.
She was a ‘‘passionate vet’’ and had ‘‘total control’’ of the animal.
In May 2010 Ms Schofield, who was described by zoo colleagues as ‘‘very well-loved’’, wrote of her enthusiasm for 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."
Mr Kerridge said Mila may remain at the zoo with a replacement keeper or 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."
Mr Kerridge said the decision would be made by the zoo and SPCA with input from specialists.
Mila arrived at Franklin Zoo two years ago after she was handed over to the SPCA. Ms Schofield had nursed her back to health and Kerridge said she had "done a good job".
The elephant, which came to the zoo in 2009 from the Weber Bros Circus, had taken time to integrate into the zoo environment.
Mila had spent 28 years with the circus before being retired to a purpose-built enclosure at the zoo.
Ms Schofield said Mila would "trumpet" when the nearby quarry would do blasting, but had recently done in front of a group of five-year-old children.
Hours before the incident, the elephant appeared friendly and was rubbing its eyes with its trunk, and spraying dust at its trainer. It did not appear agitated.
"We look out and see the elephant every day," a neighbour said. "I don't think it's very friendly. It hasn't had a very happy life."
A Labour Department spokeswoman said it had been advised of the fatality and was making preliminary inquiries. The death had also been referred to the coroner.