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Published: Wednesday, 8/11/2010

Elephant attack is still mystery, zoo's report finds

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Toledo Zoo officials said Wednesday they'll likely never get to the bottom of what happened the afternoon of July 1, when Louie the elephant attacked one of their trainers.

The employee has told zoo leaders he's lost all memory of the incident.

Trainer Don RedFox's memory loss is consistent with such a traumatic event, according to Marna Ramnath, a registered nurse and former president of the zoo's board of directors who chaired the park's internal investigation.

Trainer Don RedFox was hospitalized for about a month at University of Toledo Medical Center. He suffered two punctured lungs, broken ribs, and other injuries. Trainer Don RedFox was hospitalized for about a month at University of Toledo Medical Center. He suffered two punctured lungs, broken ribs, and other injuries.
ANONYMOUS / AP Enlarge

According to the report, Mr. RedFox, 53, of Swanton Township, violated the zoo's established protocol for elephant handling by entering a stall in the elephant restraint building alone with a bag of carrots and other items that appeared to be potatoes. That occurred at 3:48 p.m. on July 1, with the elephant and the man surprised to see each other, the report stated.

Louie was not supposed to be in the stall at that time, and Mr. RedFox was not supposed to have entered it without a second keeper to help operate gates and provide backup assistance, Anne Baker, the zoo's executive director, said at the conclusion of a news conference in which the internal findings were released. The elephant pushed Mr. RedFox out of the stall, according to the report.

Then, for reasons unknown, Mr. RedFox came back a minute later, again by himself, with an ankus, or bull hook, a prodding device with a spike and hook used for training elephants. Mr. RedFox tried to retrieve the bag of food from Louie's trunk, the report stated.

"Louie responded with aggression, pushing Mr. RedFox into a corner of the stall," the report stated. "When Louie backed away for the second time, Mr. RedFox, although obviously injured, was able to exit the stall and make his way out of the [elephant restraint building] into an area adjacent to the public walkway."

The zoo's six-member team that compiled the report said it is not known whether Mr. RedFox knew Louie was in the enclosure when he entered the first time. Nor is it known why Mr. RedFox re-entered, the report stated.

"Since the keeper has no memory of the incident, it is impossible to know the answers to those questions," the report concluded.

Additional investigations being done by the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration, which probes worker safety, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which looks for any possible signs of animal abuse, have not been completed. "We're getting to the end of our investigation, but it's not yet complete," Julie Hovi, OSHA area director, said.

Dave Sacks, USDA spokesman, described his agency's probe as a "focused inspection" of the federal Animal Welfare Act. It establishes thresholds for animal treatment.

Louie, a 7-year-old male born at the zoo, weighs 4,000 pounds.

Mr. RedFox was hospitalized for about a month at University of Toledo Medical Center, formerly the Medical College of Ohio. He suffered two punctured lungs, broken ribs, and other injuries.

Ms. Baker, who holds a PhD in primatology, said the elephant trainer is now recuperating at home and is expected to come back to work eventually.

"We fully expect Mr. RedFox to return," she said.

Zoo officials have described Mr. RedFox as a dedicated, loyal, and highly experienced employee.

Personnel records show he was rated as outstanding or exceeding expectations in all areas in which he was evaluated in February of 2009, the most recent assessment of his job performance.

A disciplinary letter in his file, dated Friday, said Mr. RedFox endangered himself by breaching the zoo's protocol for handling elephants but said his action "was completely out of character" for him.

The letter, written by Ms. Baker, said zoo officials "are confident that such behavior will not occur in the future" because Mr. RedFox had such a track record for complying with established rules throughout his 37-year tenure at the zoo.

Mr. RedFox declined a request for an interview Wednesday through a call placed to his home.

Ms. Baker said Louie will permanently remain in protected contact, meaning keepers will have to stay behind a barrier when they are working with him.

"We obviously don't want this ever happening again," Ms. Baker said.

At the news conference, she and Ms. Ramnath outlined six procedural changes the zoo will undertake to improve communications and training. Both said an adherence to protocol will be especially important once the new elephant display is done because it will involve more gates and security.

The zoo did not release the name of the keeper who was working with Mr. RedFox the day of the attack

Mr. RedFox told that keeper about 3:30 p.m. all activities involving direct contact with the elephants were finished for the day. So that keeper returned to an office to file the day's paperwork, which was allowable under zoo protocol, the report stated.

Mr. RedFox told that individual he would remain in the elephant area to set up stalls for the evening, according to the report. Louie was supposed to have been behind another barrier at that time.

Ms. Baker and Ms. Ramnath said that information gathered from the internal investigation, including a review of the security video, did not reveal why the elephant was in an area in which he could encounter Mr. RedFox.

Contact Tom Henry at:

thenry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6079.



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