Dickerson Park Zoo, Springfield, MO / USA: Elephant kills experienced keeper

On October 11, 2013,  a 41-year old Asian elephant female named “Patience” killed 62-year old elephant keeper and manager John Bradford. The attack happened inside the barn when “Patience” hesitated to enter the chute that connects the stalls with the outdoor enclosure. Bradford, who worked at the zoo since 25 years as elephant manager, leaned himself inside the chute and reached for her with a bullhook when she lunged forwards, knocked him down and crushed him. While press statements call the tool Bradford used “guide”, there is no doubt that “guide” is used as synonym as “bullhook”. Bradford died instantly.

“Patience” and the second female elephant at the zoo, “Moola”, have a history of aggression against their keepers. Therefore, both were officially managed in protected contact. However, protected contact can only guarantee the safety of the staff when the keepers actually stick to the rule of never approaching an elephant without a protective barrier between humans and animals. Regarding the elephant management in Springfield, the reaccreditation report of the North American Zoo organization AZA already raised concerns about the safety procedures in 2012 when inspectors found that staff occasionally entered the elephant`s space without barriers “or restraints” in place. This phrasing and the obvious use of bullhooks in Dickerson Park Zoo highlight the current alarming trend in North American zoos to weaken the definition of “protected contact” and include management regimes that allow keepers to interact freely with elephants without a protective fence as long as the elephants are “restrained” (= chained by at least one front and one hind leg). Within such a system, the use of bullhooks and dominance-based training continues to be essential. Under such conditions, increased safety compared to traditional free contact is nothing but an illusion:  The elephant continues to be dominated, repressed and punished, while it still has the opportunity to directly attack the keepers. However, restraining the legs by chains does not limit the movement of the head and trunk.  

All parties involved now are feigning complete ignorance regarding the underlying cause of “Patience´s” well-known aggressive behaviour, and the methods of elephant husbandry at Dickerson Park Zoo; but in fact this is nothing but hypocrisy. The history of elephant management in Springfield proves that those cruel training methods needed in free contact to keep elephants under control were - of course - used in Dickerson Park Zoo, too. On August 23, 1998, female elephant “Chai” who had just arrived at Springfield from Woodland Park Zoo for breeding purposes attacked keepers and was badly beaten as punishment. This incident later became public and was found to be abusive by the authorities. The zoo had to pay a fine to settle the charges. At that time, John Bradford was already the responsible elephant manager at Dickerson Park Zoo. It is obvious that during their “history of aggression”, “Moola” and “Patience” were punished the same way.



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