What drove Mila the elephant to kill?

KIRSTY JOHNSTON
Last updated 10:15 10/05/2012

Video of Mila the elephant before being released to Franklin Zoo.

Helen Schofield
TRAGIC: Helen Schofield was killed when Mila crushed her in her trunk.

Relevant offers

The killing of a keeper by the elephant she loved was seen as a total betrayal of trust. In the elephant's eyes, however, the betrayal began long ago. Kirsty Johnston reports.

In the months before she crushed her keeper to death, Mila the African elephant had been having panic attacks.

Keeper Helen Schofield, a trained vet who lived on site at Franklin Zoo and Wildlife Sanctuary, would comfort the three-tonne animal by speaking to her through a safety wall until she went back to sleep.

But whether panic was a factor the day Helen Schofield was killed by Mila is largely unknown.

Emergency services were called to the zoo at around 4.30pm on April 25, amid reports that the the 42-year-old vet had been crushed in the elephant's trunk.

The elephant may have been frightened by something. It may have made a mistake. But experts say it is more likely that Mila, after more than 35 years in captivity, simply snapped.

"I think she deliberately did what she did," says Jeffrey Masson, a psychiatry expert who specialises in animal emotions.

"From our point of view it's a betrayal but the elephant may have decided - she's not my friend."
The African elephant is a highly intelligent animal. It is also extremely complex. In the wild, they live in family groups, spending much of their days feeding, bathing, grooming and engaging in social activities.

Mila, however, never had the chance to be social. Aged three, she was taken from her family group in Africa, likely in a cull where all of her herd were butchered in front of her, and forced into captivity.

In zoos in London and Honolulu, Mila was bullied by other elephants, so she was bought by trainer Tony Ratcliffe and flown to New Zealand to join the Whirling Bros circus.

During that time, Mila travelled constantly, learned tricks taught to her by Ratcliffe - with the aid of a bullhook - and performed for crowds.

Sometimes she was shackled. Other times she was allowed to amble about a paddock before a show.

It was in the circus, experts believe, that the young elephant sustained the mental harm that left her damaged for life.

"You can imagine the emotional stress that an animal would have undergone to see other family members being slaughtered," says the head of animal protection agency SAFE, Hans Kriek.

"Then to be travelling, chained up, where she had hardly any room to move and only one person in her life that would give her some attention ... who was also the person that kept her captive and made her perform tricks ... it's tragic."

Mila would have bonded with Ratcliffe, experts say, but Kriek believes the elephant developed something akin to "Stockholm Syndrome" because Mila had no choice but to look for love and affection anywhere she could get it.

"She was completely subjugated to the will of a human being. She had no will of her own," he says.

Masson suggests she may also suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, usually caused by trauma and resulting in severe anxiety.

Ad Feedback

If you asked Ratcliffe, he would not agree. The elephant, which he called Jumbo - was his friend, and he loved her "like family".

"You only need to see her with me," he said. "She loves me."

In her circus trailer Mila began to routinely sway from side to side. Bored. Deprived. Isolated. And maybe lonely, if she had known enough of society to know what lonely meant.

"Impoverished," says elephant expert Peter Stroud. "From the point of view of nature you can say she was impoverished."

"If she was a human being she'd certainly be pretty screwed up."

You have to be careful, Stroud says, when attributing sentiments to elephants because although they have emotions they're not necessarily in line with human feelings.

In 2009, after extensive lobbying by SAFE, Mila was released from the Loritz Zoo, who by that stage had bought her from Ratcliffe.

Schofield, touched by the animal's story, decided to take her in at Franklin Zoo to help prepare her for a move to a sanctuary in the United States.

Mila would have liked moving to the zoo - there was more space. She could play in mud, sand and water, but at the same time her bond with Ratcliffe was broken.

More trauma. And Mila was alone again.  

Schofield recognised the loneliness and wanted to help. She spent hours with Mila, comforting her, playing with her, feeding her.

Mila's life at the zoo was stable. Elephants like predictability and Schofield provided it. Those who saw them together said there was a new bond. Plans were progressing to get Mila to the US.

But something went wrong. It was tragic, the community said, that Mila didn't know Schofield was trying to help.

"The thing is," says Masson. "What we regard as 'help' is a form of domination. And no animal likes domination."

What happened inside Mila's head on April 25 is impossible to know.

"She's a wild animal out of her context," says Stroud. "Something snapped."

Mila is still at Franklin Zoo, which remains closed while a Department of Labour investigation into the accident is carried out. She is eating and sleeping and apparently calm. It's unknown if she will ever get to the animal sanctuary in California, where she will be able to find company at last.

But elephants have enormous patience.

"I believe," says Stroud, "that Mila has come to some accommodation with her lot in life. She has switched off as a way of coping and now she is just waiting."

"That's what Mila is doing, she's waiting. And it's easy to misinterpret that as 'she's fine.'"

- © Fairfax NZ News

Special offers

Featured Promotions

Sponsored Content

Quiz SMALL pointer June 26

Daily trivia fix

Is chess your forte?