Elephant keeper: Animal 'loves me'

MICHAEL FIELD, MICHELLE COOKE, SARAH HARVEY AND MICHAEL FOX
Last updated 12:18 26/04/2012
MICHAEL FIELD

Helen Schofield's neighbour Bill Currie says Helen told him Mila the elephant "loves me."

Helen Schofield
PASSIONATE ABOUT HER CHARGE: Mila with Helen Schofield on Wednesday, during a talk to 50 zoogoers at which she revealed details of the elephant's troubled emotional state.
Mila
PANIC ATTACKS: Mila had been suffering panic attacks.
Jumbo the elephant
ROBYN EDIE/Fairfax NZ
BEFORE RETIRMENT: Mila, also known as Jumbo, in her circus performing days, with her former handler Tony Ratcliffe.
Franklin Zoo
MICHAEL FIELD/Fairfax Media
TRIBUTE: Flowers lay at the gate of Franklin Zoo and Wildlife Sanctuary in Tuakau the day after Helen Schofield was killed.

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The woman crushed to death by an elephant told a neighbour recently that the animal "loves me".

Helen Schofield was crushed to death yesterday when the elephant she had spent two years nursing back to health picked her up in its trunk and lifted her into the air, Auckland SPCA executive director Bob Kerridge said.

Schofield was the owner and director of Franklin Zoo, 56km south of Auckland. Emergency services were called to the zoo at about 4.30pm after receiving reports that Schofield had been killed by the 3.1-tonne animal.

She had cared for Mila, formerly known as Jumbo, after it ended her working life as a circus elephant. She would even give the elephant a hug to help it get to sleep at night.

Neighbour Bill Currie, who supplied three bales a day for the elephant, said Schofield was a lovely person who had been working very hard to make the place a success.

"It wasn't so long ago Helen told me 'the elephant loves me'."

He said everybody was in shock.

"She worked hard to build what is a very good facility for the community here."

The zoo had become a focal point for the community and he hoped it remained open.

"We will do anything we can to help to see it continues and carries on her work."

Currie said that would depend on Schofield's husband. "It is a hell of a thing to take."

Kerridge said Schofield was working with Mila to get her into a healthy physical and psychological state so she could be sent to live in a sanctuary with other elephants.

It was always Schofield's dream to see Mila sent to a sanctuary where she could roam free with her peers, Kerridge said.

"Helen's dream was everybody's dream." Kerridge hoped it would still come true.

Auckland Zoo worker Grace Honney was assessing the elephant, which she said was fine and not sedated.

The elephant was in its normal enclosure and Honney said it was important for Mila that it stayed in familiar surroundings.

Auckland Zoo life sciences manager Kevin Buley, speaking on behalf of Franklin Zoo, declined to rule out putting down the elephant.

"What we are doing is taking things one day at a time," he said.

The elephant was fine and had been "responding well. She slept well last night".

He said Auckland Zoo staff were there to help fellow keepers, but reiterated that it was best the elephant stayed at the Franklin Zoo.

"There is no other place for Mila."

Asked if the elephant should be put down, he replied again that they were "taking each day as it comes".

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He said police had been at the zoo this morning making inquiries on behalf of the coroner. Helen and the elephant had been extremely close.

"They had a very close relationship here," Buley said.

In May 2010 Schofield wrote of her enthusiasm for working with the elephant.

"It is a tremendous privilege to take care of Jumbo [Mila], I feel personally humbled and flattered by the big ear flapping purrs she gives me as a greeting when I return to see her from other activities in the sanctuary.

"She is so affectionate and responsive. It will be a joyful day to see her develop friends of the elephant kind in the future. This is a short way off now."

WHERE NOW FOR MILA?

Kerridge said there were three options: the elephant was sent to a sanctuary - "an expensive option", but the "ideal" one; someone replaced Schofield at the zoo and continued to care for the elephant; or "the worst situation" was that Mila would be put down.

"We're dealing with a very big animal, a wild animal, and we're dealing with an animal that really shouldn't be on its own," Kerridge said.

"It would be really nice if we could get through that dream of Helen's and get [Mila] to the sanctuary."

Kerridge said the decision would be made by the zoo and SPCA with input from specialists. He was already talking to specialists overseas.

He said he did not believe Mila had attacked Schofield. "It would appear to be a tragic accident," he said.

Mila arrived at Franklin Zoo two years ago after she was handed over to the SPCA. Schofield had nursed her back to health and Kerridge said she had "done a good job".

Just two-and-a-half hours before her death, Schofield revealed details of the elephant's troubled emotional state during a talk to a group of 50 zoogoers - including a Fairfax reporter - while standing in front of Mila's enclosure.

The elephant, which came to the zoo in 2009 from the Weber Bros Circus, had taken time to integrate into the zoo environment.

Mila, formerly known as Jumbo, had spent 28 years with the circus before being retired to a purpose-built enclosure at the zoo.

PANIC ATTACKS

Mila would frequently have panic attacks at night and Schofield, who lived on site, would comfort the animal by speaking with it through a safety wall. The elephant had apparently become more settled in recent weeks.

In an interview before Christmas, she told Fairfax that the staff were "very protective" of Mila.

"I met her 22 years ago as a vet - it affected me," she said.

Schofield said the hardest part of the day for Mila was dusk. At 9.30pm she had a special call when Mila was getting ready for sleep - she gave her a hug, touched her face and settled her.

"I wait till she starts snoring before I go back to the house."

Schofield said Mila would "trumpet" when the nearby quarry would do blasting, but recently in front of a group of 5 year olds, rather than running to the other end of her enclosure to do it, had stayed, looked at the vet and the kids, and "told the quarry off" from her spot in front of the group.

It had been hoped the elephant would eventually be moved to an elephant sanctuary in California to live out its years. It is unclear what will happen to Mila now.

During Schofield's talk the elephant appeared friendly and was rubbing its eyes with its trunk, and spraying dust at its trainer. It did not appear agitated.

Kerridge said the SPCA had been involved in choosing the zoo as a suitable retirement spot for Mila and had checked on her wellbeing frequently, including about six months ago, he said. Inspectors had been happy with her integration into zoo life.

Kerridge said Schofield was "totally in charge" of Mila and a "very passionate vet". The elephant had been her own personal interest and sole charge, and she had been nursing it back to health.

A Labour Department spokeswoman said it had been advised of the fatality and was making inquiries.

SCHOFIELD 'AN INSPIRATION'

Tributes for Schofield had poured in on the Franklin Zoo's Facebook page and flowers were being delivered to the zoo by members of the public.

"Helen was very well loved," a staff member said.

Eleanore Laugeray-Cleaver said she had spent weeks working with Schofield who "stimulated me in so many ways, from animal behaviour, to nutrition, to pure enthusiasm for the animals and everyone around her".

"She has been one my biggest inspirations in my career, and I'm saddened our world has lost such a leader."

Klayre Carreyett added her thoughts saying Schofield was "a true inspiration" and "so dedicated to the animals she loved so much". She also expressed her compassion for the elephant.

"She was so very lucky to have a friend like Helen and I'm sure she realised it - what a magical bond that they had. I'm sure that she would have been protecting her."

Emily Harrop-Smith said she was "devastated by the news" and extended her sympathies to those at the zoo.

"Helen was an absolutely amazing person and a credit to the human race."

Schofield had been trying to rehabilitate the former circus animal.

ABOUT THE ZOO

Franklin Zoo and Wildlife Sanctuary is a home and rehabilitation centre for at-risk exotic or native species which have been displaced.

It is located about half way between Auckland and Hamilton on Ridge Rd.

There are over 300 birds and animals at the zoo including monkeys, otters, zebras, emus, a bobcat and a lioness.

As well as caring for animals, the zoo aimed to educate the public and allow them to interact with the animals to try and build more empathy "and ultimately a commitment to animal welfare and stewardship of the living environment around us".

It also worked with primary school pupils and practical work placements for zoo keeping and veterinary students.

According to the website, it planned to expand and create a "sustainable native bush corridor" over 70 acres in association with the Department of Conservation.

Plans also included the building of a veterinary clinic and native bird rehabilitation hospital.

OTHER ATTACKS

Tiger handler Dalu Mncube was mauled to death in May 2009 at Zion Wild Life Gardens as he attempted to clean a tiger's enclosure.

Despite the efforts of staff who went to Mncube's aid, the tiger would not let the keeper go and he died at the scene from injuries to his head, torso and lower leg.

In 2006, a Wellington Zoo keeper was mauled by two lions as horrified members of the public looked on. Zoo staff heard Bob Bennett, then 54, cry for help and rushed to pull the lions off him. He suffered neck and chest injuries.

Investigations later revealed the fundamental cause of the mauling was Bennett's failure to lock the gate between the lions' den and the main enclosure.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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