Mila likely had 'motive to kill', says past owner

22:06, May 11 2012

Mila the elephant most likely intended to kill her keeper at Franklin Zoo, says her former owner.

Robin Ratcliffe, brother of Mila's former handler Tony Ratcliffe, said they warned officials that someone would get hurt if her transition to the zoo was not handled correctly.

"This tragedy was in the making," he said. "We didn't have any doubt. It was only a matter of time."

That time came on the afternoon of April 25, when keeper Helen Schofield, a vet who lived on site at Franklin Zoo and Wildlife Sanctuary, was crushed to death by the elephant. It is understood Ms Schofield, 42, was killed when Mila picked her up with her trunk before bringing her down, crushing her.

Robin Ratcliffe, founder of Hamilton engineering firm Modern Transport Engineers, said it was likely Mila knew what she was doing. "Mila possibly had a motive to kill her," he said.

"We won't conclusively be able to say that until we actually see evidence of how it happened, but we've got a strong belief that the elephant more or less set her up.


He said the killing would have been linked to prolonged separation from her former handler, Tony Ratcliffe. Her transition to Franklin Zoo should have taken at least two years with Tony's assistance, but instead, she was taken from the Ratcliffes and they had not been allowed to see her since.

"So now we see a distressed animal ... because it's lost the one thing that it knows it's got security with – my brother. Everyone else becomes a threat.

"She [dealt] out some punishment. She wouldn't have done that if she was happy."

He was surprised the SPCA and police had not contacted the family since the incident. The brothers know Mila better than anyone else – they cared for her for 31 years.

They bought the elephant – then named Mele Kahea – from Honolulu Zoo in 1978, when she was 5-years-old. She was renamed Jumbo, trained and cared for by Tony and was sold to Whirling Bros circus on the condition that he would stay on as her handler.

Robin Ratcliffe dismissed claims by animal rights organisations that Jumbo suffered during her time in the circus. He said the sway she developed was a "lulling motion" common with elephants, and was not linked to anxiety or stress. He said allegations that she was having panic attacks in the night were also unfounded. "There is absolutely no way that Jumbo has been physiologically damaged by the association and bond that she has built up with Tony."

He said the elephant was loved by the family. When she nearly died following a drug overdose at Auckland Zoo, Tony slept beside her to comfort her.

"Behind the scenes of this animal, this elephant, there's been a loving, caring family that have been with her since 1978 when we brought her in."