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Elephant attacks on humans rare, unexplained, unpredictable

Tuesday, November 19, 2002

By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

People sometimes forget that elephants -- caricatured as slow, friendly, dependable creatures willing to serve as circus props or transportation vehicles -- are wild animals.

Before yesterday's fatal attack at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, five elephant keepers at zoos and four at circuses in the United States had been killed by elephants since 1990. And more than 30 other attacks, nine of them at zoos, have resulted in injuries.

The attacks are relatively rare and largely unexplained, except when the animals have a history of aggressive behavior or have been provoked or startled.

Why the elephant at the Pittsburgh Zoo killed its keeper yesterday is a question elephant experts say may never be answered.

"I can't say what would cause the elephant in Pittsburgh to do what it did. It's very unlike females to behave like that," said Michael Keele, assistant director of the Oregon Zoo and head of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association's elephant advisory committee.

"For a long time American zoos didn't work much with African elephants because they were thought to be more high strung, but we're not seeing that and the Pittsburgh Zoo's experience has shown them to be trainable, tractable and intelligent."

There are 236 African elephants in captivity in North American zoos, circuses and private preserves, and 400,000 to 500,000 in the wild.

African elephants are internationally listed as a "threatened" species by the Convention on International Trade in Threatened and Endangered Species. "Threatened" means the species is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future.

Asian elephants are endangered, meaning the species is in peril of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. There are 275 Asian elephants in captivity in North America.

The African bush elephant involved in the attack yesterday is a 20-year-old female that was born at the San Diego Wild Animal Park and arrived in Pittsburgh in 1994 from the Miami Metrozoo. The elephant, known as "M," had no history of violent behavior before fatally attacking Mike Gatti, 46, who had worked with the zoo elephants for six years.

Lynette A. Hart, a veterinary medicine professor at the University of California at Davis who has done extensive research into human-elephant interaction, said it is often the most docile and dependable elephants that commit unprovoked and surprising attacks on humans.

"It's hard to have adequate respect for the potential of an elephant because they seem so soft and sweet all the time," Hart said. "But I've heard lots of stories about circus elephant trainers who were killed by animals they felt were friendly and reliable."

The last fatal attack by a zoo elephant occurred in October 2001 in London. The last one in the United States occurred in May 1997 when a keeper was crushed by an elephant at the Frank Buck Zoo in Gainesville, Texas.

The last fatal elephant attack at an American Zoo and Aquarium Association accredited zoo occurred in July 1993 at Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, Fla.

Hart said yesterday's attack, already drawing interest from zoos across the nation, is likely to fuel debate about "protected contact" elephant training programs vs. "free contact" programs. Protected contact programs keep the elephants behind a barrier, while the more historic and traditional free contact programs, like that at the Pittsburgh Zoo, allow interaction between the animals and their keepers and trainers.

"People working in zoos find it very rewarding to have contact with elephants they feel they can trust," Hart said, "but they need to remember these are unpredictable animals."

The Oakland Zoo in California switched from a free contact to a protected contact program after an African bull elephant attacked and killed his keeper of 15 years in January 1990.

The Indianapolis Zoo still uses a free contact program, despite a November 1998 attack by a 29-year-old female elephant on one of its zookeepers that broke the woman's ribs and punctured a lung.

"We have the capacity to do both protected and free contact but choose to do free contact because we believe it allows us to give better and superior care to the animals," said Paul Grayson, chief operating officer at the Indianapolis Zoo.

Grayson said the zoo's African elephant herd has five adults and two calves. The female elephant involved in the 1998 attack remains a member of the herd and the keeper is back working with the elephants. The elephant involved in the attack has never again acted aggressively toward any human keeper.

Following the incident, the zoo removed the female elephant from a program in which elephants were used to give rides to zoo patrons. The zoo has recently discontinued the ride program.

The elephants, including the one involved in the 1998 attack, continue to go on exercise walks around the zoo, sometimes twice a day.

"Reports of attacks like the one in Pittsburgh do concern us, but it's not just with elephants," Grayson said. "Although our zoo keepers work directly with our animals and get to know them, animals can -- although rarely -- do inexplicable things."

Don Hopey can be reached at dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.

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