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City of Knoxville, Tennessee
Madeline Rogero, Mayor

For Immediate Release
Zoo Releases Review Panel Findings in Death of Elephant Handler
Knoxville ZooMarch 24, 2011 - Knoxville Zoo has received the final conclusions from two reviews of the January 14 incident that resulted in the tragic death of elephant handler Stephanie James. A comprehensive review was conducted by an independent, multidisciplinary accident review team at the request of the zoo, while another was done by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).

The independent review panel members were Dr. Barbara Baker, President and CEO, Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium, Chief Stan Sharp, Fire Chief, City of Knoxville, Dr. John New, University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, and Mr. Patrick Roddy, Knoxville Zoo Board Member and former CEO of Knoxville Zoo.

After a comprehensive review of the incident, the findings they reported were:

  • Two elephant handlers present were qualified and adequately trained to handle elephants.
  • All parties interviewed, both separately and together, were straightforward, answered all questions, and were consistent in their recounting of the incident, without exception.
  • All policies and procedures reviewed by the team were being followed.
  • Enrichment items being offered were routine and incidental to the incident.
  • There were no documentable stimuli either visual or auditory that would have triggered the reaction from the elephant.
  • There had been no changes in the routine in the elephant barn during the week before the incident.
  • No apparent cause for the elephant to move forward toward Ms. James was found.
  • Injury occurred as elephant moved forward toward Ms. James, who was standing in front of a steel containment bollard, pinning her against the bollard.
  • No obvious aggression by the elephant before, during or after the incident, was reported.
  • Injury could have been avoided if handler had been standing in approximately 2 foot open space between two bollards.
  • This was an accidental death.

    In a special report issued by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), of which the zoo is an accredited member, the conclusion issued was:

    The Knoxville Zoo's elephant management protocols are consistent with AZA standards. The present senior elephant staff is qualified and experienced. The Zoo's immediate response to the incident was timely and followed their written protocol, including switching immediately to protected contact management of the two female elephants. Although it is not known what provoked this fatal incident on January 14, 2011, this does not appear to be an isolated incident with this elephant. Three previous documented incidents involving Edie in conjunction with the January 14, 2011 fatality has raised concern, and should be considered as an indicator of the possibility that an aggressive behavior pattern is developing. The Knoxville Zoo staff must consider how they will manage these elephants in the future, especially in relationship with past events and trends. To that end, we understand that the Knoxville Zoo will, in due course, promptly apprise AZA of its determinations and plans as to how it will manage such elephants.

    The three previous incidents involving Edie elephant referenced in the AZA conclusion occurred between 2007 and 2010, and were determined by the zoo's senior management to be isolated incidents and not of an aggressive nature.

    A review of the incident conducted by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources (TWRA) concluded that while Ms. James fatal injuries were the result of an intentional blow from Edie, the elephant was not acting in an aggressive or malicious manner. The TWRA report also stated that the zoo was adhering to established safety procedures at the time of the incident. In an inspection following the incident, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) found the zoo to be in compliance with all USDA regulations. A review by the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health (TOSHA) is currently on-going.

    All three of the zoo's African elephants will be managed in protected contact, a change that was implemented immediately following the incident on January 14. Protected contact involves handling of an elephant through a protective barrier. The elephant is not spatially confined and free to leave the area at will.

    Knoxville Zoo is Knoxville's largest year-round attraction. Located off exit 392A from Interstate 40, the zoo is open every day except Christmas Day. Knoxville Zoo is nationally accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and is committed to the highest standards in animal care and well-being, ethics, conservation, and education. Currently, the zoo is open Monday through Friday from 9:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. and from 9:30 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission and ticket sales stop one-hour before the zoo closes. Nextday admission is free after 3 p.m. For more information, please call 865-637-5331 ext. 300 or visit www.knoxvillezoo.org.
  • For Immediate Release
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