Accidents with Elephants

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Do many accidents happen with elephants?

There's no year without happening some heavy accidents with elephants.
We are informed about 3 to 4 dead elephant keepers every year just in the European and North-American zoos and circuses. In addition there are some seriously injured elephant keepers and circus people, who can no longer work with elephants because of physical or mental reasons.

Accident in thr Circus Krone / D

Where have accidents happened?

A nervous female elephant at Moscow zoo killed its handler on 10.10.2007 with a hit of its leg while being moved onto a truck.
Olga Gorelovskaya, 40, worked as elephant handler for more than 10 years and her co-workers say that she spoke common language with these giant animals.
Such an incident was not the first in Moscow. In 2001 an elephant killed its trainer,

In winter 2005, the supervisor of the elephant house at Vienna Zoo was attacked and mortally wounded by Abu, a young elephant bull.

In spring 2001, an elephant keeper was killed in the Zoo of Chester by a cow elephant, when he took the elephants from the stable to the outer enclosure.

In the zoo of Basel a young elephant hurt the keeper seriously after a surgery. The elephant keeper could survive by jumping into the separation ditch.

In summer 2001, an elephant keeper was killed by a cow elephant in a Czech zoo, when he tripped over a foot chain during a medical treatment.

In the London zoo an experienced elephant keeper was killed in autumn 2001 by a cow elephant, when he fell down in the outer enclosure for unknown reasons.

Why do accidents happen every so often?

There are several reasons why again and again it comes to accidents with elephants:

  • There's an enormous difference in strength between elephants and humans. On the one side the massive elephant and on the other side the relatively weak and fragile human.
  • Another reason is because of the hierarchical structure of the elephant group. The elephant keeper must develop his alpha position among the elephants and he has to confirm it again and again.
  • The elephant bulls' musth is underestimated or is noticed too late.

Are accidents always preceded by an attack?

A misunderstanding between human and elephant can result - without bad intentions - in fatal consequences. It is a classic accident, which could also happen on a farm or in a horse stable, when human and animal try to pass a narrow door at the same time. What, with a little bit of luck, would possibly cause just fractures when having an accident with horses or cows, would almost certainly cause lethal injuries in accidents with elephants.

Are there also ill-meant attacks?

However besides the unfortunate misunderstandings, there are also vicious attacks of the elephants against their keepers. The hierarchical group structure among the elephants brings about continual wrangling and fights between the animals. Because the elephants consider their keeper to be another elephant, he has to confirm and to develop his position within the group again and again.

Attack by a Elephantcow

How can attacks be avoided?

  • The elephant keeper will achieve this goal by a good training of his elephants. Only, if the elephants have enough respect for and confidence in their keeper, they will accept his position in the hierarchy.
  • Another reason lies in the hierarchical structure of a group of elephants. The elephant keepers have to work with the elephants and have repeatedly confirmed his alpha position.
  • The musth the male elephant is recognized underestimated or too late
  • It also caused accidents for pure stupidity, can be seen here: http://www.youtube.com

Why do attacks nevertheless take place?

Young elephants at the age of puberty, power struggles within the elephant group and new keepers "disturb" the stable herd structure. This leads to conflicts, which can result in tragic accidents.

Babyelefant Unfall

Are elephants dangerous after all?

But again and again there are also accidents "out of the blue". Without any warning or an apparent reason, an elephant, which had been reliable and familiar up until that point, is going to attack his keeper. After attacks like that, all concerned persons are shocked and search for an explanation for the "abnormal behaviour" of the elephant. Often they say then: The elephant "cracked up" for unknown reasons.
However the reason for the attack will normally continue to be a mystery. Perhaps for a short moment the beast in the elephant turned up. This is why elephants - in spite of the training and their familiarity with their keepers in the zoos and circuses - are still very dangerous animals.

What makes elephant bulls dangerous?

The musth phenomenon of elephant bulls is often underestimated. Some bulls become aggressive still before the outer symptoms are noticeable. Even the safest bull stable is useless, if the safety measures have not yet been installed. In many cases the own bull is also underestimated according to the principle: "My bull will do me no harm". This can be a fatal fallacy.

And young elephant bulls?

Also young bulls can cause accidents, which still live together with the cow elephants in free contact to the keepers. Actually the young bull should already live in another zoo. But frequently it is very difficult to find a good new place for young bulls. Because of structural and/or financial reasons, most of the zoos are only capable of keeping one bull.

When does musth occur for the first time?

However it can easily be that the first musth symptoms of a young bull occur already at the age of about 7 years. That means that from this age on a young bull should be accustomed to a bull stable and should let himself manage without direct contact to the elephant keepers by the Protected Contact.

Do accidents often occur with bulls?

When some years ago elephant bulls were still performing in circuses and were kept just like cow elephants in the zoos, accidents with bulls were very frequent and inevitable. Fortunately such accidents are rare nowadays - at places, where the safety plan works.

What happens to "bad" elephants?

Accidents are tragic both for humans and animals.
Often elephants, which killed their keeper or seriously hurt him, are also killed. This is done because the confidence in the elephant has been destroyed. An elephant, which killed his keeper could possibly again kill or hurt his keeper, when other conflicts arise.
The elephant bull Ziggy from the zoo of Chicago was kept for 30 years only in the inner stable of the elephant house, after he had attacked his keeper, who had the good fortune to survive the attack. Nobody dared to take Ziggy to the outer grounds. In 1975 the bull died after he had fallen into the separation ditch.

Elephantbull Ziggy

Where did the latest serious accidents take place?

20th February 2005 Vienna
Tragic Accident at the Elephant House

On Sunday, 20th February 2005, at 10.40 a.m., the supervisor of the elephant house at Vienna Zoo, 39-year-old Gerd Kohl was attacked and mortally wounded by Abu, a young elephant bull. Gerd Kohl had the reputation of being one of Europe's most experienced elephant keepers which is why he had been the one to take care of the barely 4-year-old elephant. In fact, he had been training and looking after Abu since his birth at Vienna Zoo on 25th April 2001.

The accident took place during the elephants' daily morning shower. Abu, who weighs 1.6 tons, unexpectedly turned on Gerd Kohl and pinned him to the wall, spearing him with his tusks and injuring him so badly that all help came too late. The bull is currently undergoing a phase of aggressive and unpredictable behaviour common in adolescent elephant males. This is the time when bull elephants are weaned from their mothers and prepared by their personal trainer for "protected contact", i.e. the manner in which they will be looked after by the keepers in future. "Protected contact" means that the keepers have no direct contact with the elephant. For safety reasons, care, training as well as all other contact always take place from a distance.

Press release 20 February 2003
Elephant keeper killed


Wednesday morning the 19th of February 2003 one of the elephant keepers at Safari Beekse Bergen, Hilvarenbeek, the Netherlands was injured badly by an elephant during his daily work. He was immediately taken to the nearby hospital where he died late that evening. Keepers, staff, management and director have sent their deepest condolences to the family.
During the daily training routine, where four keepers work with the five female African elephants of the park, one of them gave the keeper a blow with the head. As the keeper thereafter stumbled and fell, the elephant attacked him with head and feet. Two other keepers were able to removed their injured colleague from the stable whilst the third phoned for the ambulance. Within 20 minutes the injured keeper was in the hospital.
During Wednesdays' training nothing abnormal was noticed which could be responsible for the sudden deviated behaviour of the elephant. Parks management has installed an inquiry after the cause of the incident and the labour inspection authorities have been informed. For keepers and others staff members trauma therapists are available. The elephants will remain in the indoor enclosures for the time being and public will have no access there.

Pittsburgh Tribune Review
Cause may never be known
Tuesday, November 19, 2002


It might never be known what caused a normally docile female elephant to kill an experienced handler. The 20-year-old elephant knocked down and pinned handler Michael Gatti to the ground with its head. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which licenses zoos, will investigate, spokesman Jim Rogers said. Females, who lead elephant herds, generally are more easygoing and eager to please than males, experts say. Professional elephant handlers at zoos a cross the country expressed shock and sorrow over Gatti's death. "It's a close-knit community and a close-knit group," said Don Winstel, assistant director of the Columbus Zoo in Ohio and a former elephant handler. Elephants put Winstel in the hospital twice during his career. Mike Keele, assistant director of the Oregon Zoo and a former elephant handler, was attacked by a female elephant 23 years ago. Jane Ballantine, spokeswoman for the American Zoo & Aquarium Association, describes elephant handler as "an extremely dangerous job." "You're working with wild animals. They're unpredictable. The people who are with them all the time can read their behavior. But anything can happen that sends them in a direction that you might not want to see." Handlers use two methods to command elephants: free contact and protected contact, Ballantine said. The Pittsburgh Zoo uses free contact, in which the handlers have direct physical contact with the elephants. Protected contact means a barrier exists between the keeper and the elephant.

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