'Gentle' elephant killed trainer

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

An elephant that killed her handler two years ago in a South Auckland zoo was being gentle even toward the end, a Coroner's report reveals.

Coroner Sarn Herdson's findings into the death of Dr Helen Schofield, who was killed by the African elephant Mila at the Franklin Zoo on Anzac Day last year, were released today and included the moving evidence of an eyewitness, identified as Jensson.

"The elephant held her with her trunk pulling her right leg trousers back into the enclosure," he told the court.

"The elephant slowly put her trunk around her mid section and shaked her (sic) a little to get her trunk around. It was all very gentle."

During the whole time Dr Schofield was saying "Mila let me down, Mila be good'."

Mila was a 39-year-old elephant, weighing 3.7 tonnes and 3.4 metres tall.

She had been at the Tuakau zoo for two and a half years but before that had spent around 30 years of her life with the Whirling circus touring New Zealand.

Coroner Herdson said the evidence she heard showed that those who worked with Mila considered that she had transitioned into the zoo and was becoming accustomed to her new habitat and keepers.

On the day of the death Dr Schofield had been outside the elephant enclosure with around six or seven visitors nearby.

The enclosure had an electric fence with bollards and chain wire and could be accessed by Dr Schofield through a gap at one end.

Witnesses said Dr Schofield was explaining the elephant to people as Mila was inside the enclosure throwing sand around with her trunk.

At one point Dr Schofield went into the enclosure to give Mila some food and then came out.

"It was at that point that Mila was seen to move suddenly," the coroner said.

Jensson said the elephant jumped as if it was spooked.

"It jumped like one metre sideways. I didn't hear or see anything that would have caused that."

Dr Schofield's sister Jennifer Chung told the coroner it was possible that Mila's trunk hit the electric fence.

"She is aware of the fence and knows it is electrified. She had occasional shocks before.

"I asked Helen what's happened and she said that Mila was shocked by the fence."

At that point Dr Schofield told people she would calm Mila with some fruit.

She held out fruit and at one point Mila put her head down and Dr Schofield examined something.

Jensson described Mila moving towards Dr Schofield at an increasing speed and Dr Schofield backed up and then turned shortly before the open gate area at which point she fell.

He described the elephant putting her trunk around Dr Schofield and being very gentle.

"When she was picked up, she called for the elephant to put her down and tapped her on the head," Jensson said.

"The elephant went down on her knees and pushed her head and trunk down into the bank. She moved her head from side to side as she did this."

It was a rocking motion with Dr Schofield inside the trunk.

"She was saying for the elephant to let her go."

The witness said the elephant did and Dr Schofield was moving and talking.

"The elephant than backed away before coming back up to her and was rubbing the end of her trunk over her. That was the last time we saw her move."

Jensson said the elephant came back twice and did the same thing.

"It looked like the elephant was protecting her. She was still angry and there was no way that anyone could get close."

Another witness identified as Ms McNair said she saw a motionless Dr Schofield on the ground.

"The elephant was still close ... and looked like it was sniffing her. I really think the elephant did not mean to hurt her."

Jennifer Chung said Mila did not seem angry but was instead frightened.

Forensic pathologist Dr June Vuletic found the cause of death due to multiple injuries in her chest and abdomen.

Coroner Herdson said she found it probable Mila received an electric shock that caused her to jump.

"I accept the proposition that Dr Schofield's actions in going into the enclosure to calm Mila were born out of concern for the elephant, but that her judgment about the level of risk and exposure to serious harm was probably impaired due to her likely fatigue from working long hours over a period of many months."

The coroner said she reviewed the Labour Department's report on work place safety at the zoo and concluded she did not need to make any recommendations.

"It is apparent that there were exiting, satisfactory protocols and established management guidelines that were not observed on the day of Dr Schofield's death."

The factors behind Dr Schofield's death were listed as fatigue on her part, agitation of Mila due to electric shock and Dr Schofield slipping while exiting the enclosure.