John Bradford, 62, was working at Dickerson Park Zoo in Missouri in an enclosure with four elephants. According to a Dickerson Park Zoo press release, Bradford and his coworkers were trying to maneuver a female elephant, Patience, from her stall into a narrow chute leading to the yard, when she made a sudden movement. Bradford was knocked to the ground inside the chute and pinned against the floor. He was killed instantly.
Bradford had worked at the zoo for 30 years and was in the enclosure with other zoo staff, none of whom were harmed.
A news release reported that zookeepers had been watching over the female elephants more often since the death of their matriarch, Connie, earlier this month. Zookeepers reported that Patience’s behavior had been hesitant and submissive since then.
The zoo responded to public inquiry about the incident on their Facebook page: “In response to multiple questions: Dickerson Park Zoo has no plans for disciplinary actions or euthanasia of the elephant following this morning’s accident. We do appreciate your kind words and prayers.”
An unnecessary or tragic death is always a sad event in life. When it comes to the deaths of zookeepers caused by the animals they interact with on a near-daily basis, the situation becomes complex. Many ardent animal welfare supporters may say that the trainers were getting what they deserve for taking a wild animal out of its natural habitat for human entertainment. The recent documentary Blackfish has gained much acclaim for its analysis of this subject. The documentary follows the story of killer whale Tilikum who killed several trainers while in captivity and their exploitation by SeaWorld.
It is a tragedy that John Bradford was killed while working with elephants. It will also be a tragedy if deaths like his, and those at SeaWorld, are not a glaring wake up call for zoos across the world to reevaluate their practices. Even with the best animal welfare ratings, and the best enclosures humans can manufacture, absolutely nothing is a substitute for life in the wild, where these animals belong.