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June 8, 2011 / V A Nichols

Knoxville zoo fined in keeper death

TOSHA fines Knoxville Zoo in death

Report on elephant keeper’s fatal injury calls animal ‘dangerous’

By Amy McRary

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Knoxville Zoo is facing $8,400 in fines because of the Jan. 14 death of elephant keeper Stephanie James.

The proposed fines are part of a Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigation into James’ death made public Monday. The report also calls Edie, the 8,500-pound African elephant that fatally injured James, “dangerous” and notes past “aggressive behavior” by the 27-year-old pachyderm.

During its investigation, TOSHA discovered 12 other workplace violations, many relating to the use and condition of some maintenance department equipment. Those violations make the proposed fines total $12,600.

The zoo has 20 days to contest the citation and penalties or 30 days to pay the penalties.

The report also notes that the zoo has written protocol to train its elephant keepers but only a draft copy of a 2009 safety program manual and not an “effective safety and health management program.”

Zoo Executive Director Jim Vlna said Monday the park was still going through the TOSHA report. “We need to weigh the options and determine what we need to do next,” he said.

In a statement, Vlna also said: “We adhere strictly to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) professional standards for elephant management, as we did the day of the incident. Immediately following the incident, we elected to begin managing our elephants in protected contact, which is also an option approved by the AZA. … Our employees are our most vital asset and we are committed to ensuring their safety at all times.”

James, 33, died from internal injuries after Edie pinned her against a wide steel pole called a bollard inside the zoo elephant barn. At the time, James was giving Edie a treat box of food inside a barn stall.

It was late afternoon when James placed the treat box in a stall’s southwest corner and called Edie to come get the food. The TOSHA summary notes that Edie walked through the stall gate and “for a brief moment her eyes widened like she was spooked.” James, the report says, saw Edie’s action and told the elephant “No.” Edie kept walking toward the keeper, stopping within eight inches of her.

Another keeper called to Edie, telling the animal to move from James. At that point, the report says, “Edie lunged forward with her trunk, intentionally striking the victim on the left side of her body, and then turned to head back” to another stall.

TOSHA recommends the zoo be cited “for not placing dangerous animals such as Edie … into a ‘protected contact’ environment to prevent the keepers from being injured.” It recommends the park be fined $5,400 for not providing James with a place of employment “free from recognized hazards that were causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”

The report also proposes the zoo be fined $3,000 for not reporting a work-related death to the state agency within eight hours.

Specifically the report cites the zoo for how James and other keepers cared for Edie and the park’s other female elephant, Jana, in what’s called “free contact.”

In that approach keepers work with the animals without bars or other barriers between them. TOSHA says the zoo should require keepers to work with elephants in protected contact using bars or barriers.

The park has made protected contact a permanent procedure since James’ death.

TOSHA’s report includes a summary of other incidents involving Edie and keepers or the public. In 2007 Edie knocked down a keeper twice with her trunk, put her tusk on the man’s head and pushed him before suddenly stopping. Two incidents occurred in October 2010. In one, James was pushed by Edie while walking the elephant in the pachyderms’ outdoor yard. In the second, Edie tossed a rock or mud ball that hit a zoo visitor in the head, bounced off and hit a second visitor in the stomach.

TOSHA calls the zoo’s reaction to Edie’s past actions into question, saying the park “did not consider Edie’s prior aggressive behavior and conduct as a serious hazard, and, as a measure to prevent future injuries to humans, place their elephant in protected contact.”

The report is the fourth into James’ death. The reports differ in the issue of Edie’s behavior.

A four-member panel established by the zoo found that James’ death was accidental and that Edie showed no signs of aggression before, during or afterward.

A Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency report called Edie’s move “intentional” but not malicious. Edie meant to strike James but could have been doing so out of play, affection or another motive, according to the TWRA. And a report by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the group that accredits zoos, raised concern about Edie potentially developing an aggressive streak.

Edie’s future “is with the Knoxville Zoo,” Vlna said. “If there’s a better situation for her, certainly we would consider that. But right now she is going to stay with us.”

Amy McRary may be reached at 865-342-6437.


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