Safety and OSHA News

Zoo pays fine, admits no fault in elephant handler’s death

The Knoxville Zoo has settled with Tennessee OSHA the case involving the death of an elephant keeper. An 8,500 pound elephant pushed the keeper into the metal bars of a stall, and the employee later died of internal injuries.

The zoo will pay $9,000 to TOSHA but also stipulates that it doesn’t admit any violations.

The elephant, Edie, killed handler Stephanie James in January 2011.

James had called the elephant into the stall to give her a treat. Another trainer in the elephant barn said Edie’s eyes widened when she entered the stall as if she had been spooked.

TOSHA’s investigation uncovered there had been previous incidents involving Edie with both trainers and visitors. In one incident, she knocked and held down another trainer using her trunk. That trainer had to be treated for injuries at a hospital.

The state agency concluded that because of Edie’s previous aggressive behavior, the zoo should have placed her in “protected contact.” TOSHA suggested the trainers never be inside a stall with the elephant.

Since there are no specific regulations regarding the safety of zoo employees around animals, TOSHA used the General Duty Clause to issue the zoo a $5,000 fine for not placing animals such as Edie in protected contact to prevent employee injuries. The General Duty Clause says an employer must provide an environment free of recognized hazards that are likely to cause death or serious injury.

The zoo was also cited for not reporting James’ death to TOSHA in a timely manner and for other violations related to the use and condition of maintenance equipment. The original fine was proposed to be $12,600.

As part of the settlement, the zoo has agreed that the elephants will be managed with barriers between them and their keepers.

The zoo has pointed out that investigations by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums found that the Knoxville facility followed established protocol for managing elephants.

The settlement does point out that there will be some occasions when handlers will need to have unrestricted contact with the elephants, such as when they require medical treatment.

The zoo says it will pay the fine out of its budget line item for insurance and related expenses. Knoxville Zoo Executive Director Jim Vlna said, “That means we have to take $9,000 out of something else … This was definitely unexpected.”

Knoxville Zoo is among the “Top 60” zoos in the country featured in a book, America’s Best Zoos: A Travel Guide for Fans and Families by Allen W. Nyhuis and Jon Wassner.

Do you think the settlement in this case was appropriate given the circumstances? Let us know what you think in the comments below.

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  1. I wonder how well they train their elephant handlers? I’m not faulting the handler per se, but did she have a degree in zoology? Did she know the psychology of how temperamental elephants can be? I had a friend some time back who was a zoologist at Audubon Zoo in New Orleans. A good friend of his worked with the elephants there and didn’t know how to recognize when these animals get spooked. Never, ever get complacent around them. The elephant handler had the identical problem; he didn’t recognize that the elephant became spooked by something and the elephant slammed him to the wall, killing him instantly.

  2. Maybe this is why we shouldn’t take wild animals and train them to entertaine us.
    At least they did kill Edie, like they often do. Upsetting for all involved.

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