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Elephant kills keeper at Pittsburgh zoo

1st human fatality at facility

Tuesday, November 19, 2002

By Ann Belser and Marylynne Pitz, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

On mornings when weather permits, elephants at the Pittsburgh Zoo are brought out of their enclosure to walk with their keepers around the grounds.

Mike Gatti stands with elephants in a photo taken at the zoo on Saturday. The elephant at right was not the 20-year-old female responsible for Gatti's death, a zoo official said. (Edward Miller photo)

Yesterday, two keepers were about halfway around the zoo with a 20-year-old mother elephant and her 3-year-old female calf when the mother elephant stopped near the Northern Shores Cafe building.

When the keeper urged her to move along, the elephant butted him and pinned him to the ground with her head, crushing him.

The trainer, Mike Gatti, 46, an elephant keeper at the zoo for nearly six years, was taken to UPMC St. Margaret, where he was pronounced dead.

Joseph Dominick, Allegheny County chief deputy coroner, said an autopsy will be performed today.

Barbara Baker, zoo president and CEO, said the other keeper, Amos Morris, called the mother elephant off the trainer and summoned help on his hand-held radio. She said she ran to the scene and with another zoo worker performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

Baker said she believes he was killed instantly. She said the entire incident lasted about 30 seconds.

After the elephant released Gatti, Baker said, the mother elephant and her calf walked down the hill toward the area of the Kids Kingdom. The two elephants were then herded back to their enclosure at the Elephant House by workers in vans and trucks.

"We were able to just slowly walk them up the path," she said.

The incident occurred at 8:45 a.m., 15 minutes before the zoo was scheduled to open. The zoo remained closed for the rest of the day. Grief counselors went to the zoo.

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"The zoo is in deep mourning at the loss of a dear friend and staff member," Baker said.

She said Gatti's death was the first human fatality at the Pittsburgh Zoo.

The female elephant that attacked weighs 6,200 pounds. Her calf, which is still nursing, weighs 1,680 pounds. Baker said elephants nurse until they are 4 years old.

The calf was the first of two that have been born at the Pittsburgh Zoo.

The elephants are trained to respond to voice commands and are also prodded along by an instrument called an ankus, which is a hook on the end of a stick that the trainers use to urge the elephants along.

She said nothing unusual happened to provoke the animal.

Baker said the elephant will be checked for medical problems, but that she is being kept with the rest of the zoo's elephant herd and will not be destroyed.

"This is a breeding female African elephant. This is an endangered species," Baker said.

The elephant was born at San Diego Wild Animal Park in 1982. She came to Pittsburgh in 1994 from the Miami Metrozoo. In 1999 she became the first African elephant born in captivity to give birth in captivity. The Pittsburgh Zoo started an African elephant breeding program in 1998.

Baker said the walks, which take about 15 minutes, are incorporated into the elephants' regular schedule because zoo officials believe exercise is important to the animals and has contributed to the success of the breeding program.

The Pittsburgh Zoo's female elephant M, with her baby, V, in a June, 2000, photo. (John M. Butler II, Post-Gazette)

She said it took zoo workers six years to successfully breed this elephant.

The behavior that the elephant displayed of striking its trainer with its head is common between the elephants, she said.

"She's a good mother and this is a very unfortunate incident," she said.

Connie George, a spokeswoman for the zoo, said the elephant's behavior yesterday was atypical.

"This is our most docile elephant. She's the model we use when we talk to other trainers about elephants. She's like a model elephant. She's the most subordinate in the group. She's so totally well-behaved. She is not stubborn. She's very gentle, very responsive," George said.

The incident was reported to the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, the national organization that accredits zoos.

Rescue workers perform CPR on elephant keeper Mike Gatti while transferring him to an ambulance yesterday morning. (Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette)

The Pittsburgh Zoo was last accredited in March, a process that involves a site inspection by a team from the association. It also reviews major incidents at zoos including human and animal deaths, said Hillary Walker, spokeswoman for the association.

The association's accreditation department plans to request copies of reports about the incident and then will decide whether to further investigate.

Linda Dickerson, chairwoman of the zoo's board of directors, said the board has no reason to believe there are problems with the way elephants are handled, but said after an investigation is completed "We will take whatever measures are necessary" to protect zoo staff.

Zoo workers were under orders not to speak to the news media.

Police were called to the zoo after the incident and officers were stationed outside the grounds to secure the area. A call over the police radio ordered officers to keep the media away from the area and a Special Weapons and Tactics team was dispatched to the zoo's main entrance.

Willie Theison, the zoo's elephant manager and lead keeper, left the zoo in late September to be a consultant and is based in Germany. Baker said Theison is on sabbatical and is starting an elephant breeding program in Germany.

Ann Belser can be reached at abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699.

Marylynne Pitz can be reached at mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.

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