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Elephant kills Missouri zookeeper, won't be euthanized

An elephant at the Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, Mo., made a sudden move that killed a zookeeper who had been working there for three decades.  NBC's Brian Williams reports.

Courtesy of City of Springfield

Patience the elephant at the Dickerson Park Zoo in Missouri.

An elephant named Patience with a history of aggression against handlers crushed a zookeeper Friday morning in Missouri but will not be disciplined, officials said.

John Phillip Bradford, 62, the manager of the elephants at Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, was trying to coax Patience through a chute connecting the elephant barn and the yards when she knocked him into the chute and crushed him against the floor, said Cora Scott, a spokeswoman for the city. Bradford died instantaneously, Scott said.

After initially saying the elephant "charged" the zookeeper, Scott later clarified that that Patience "lunged forward" in the narrow chute as Bradford was leaning in to guide her. Other zookeepers working with Bradford quickly pulled the animal away from Bradford, whose actions were "consistent with zoo policies," she said.

"The whole incident took place in a matter of seconds," Scott said.

Scott said Patience had been "hesitant and submissive" since the death Oct. 4 of the herd's matriarch, known both as Connie and as Pinky, who had been suffering from kidney disease and had lost nearly 1,000 pounds.

Zookeepers had been keeping a close eye on Patience and another female elephant in the wake of the matriarch's death, officials said.

In a statement Friday afternoon, the city said no disciplinary action would be taken against Patience, adding: "The animal will not be euthanized."

An accreditation report by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums last year said Patience and a sister elephant, Moola, "have a history of aggression toward handlers."

The report — which said standards for elephant care were good — noted that while the animals were generally behind barriers or in restraints, sometimes the keepers went into their space without protection.

Bradford had worked at the zoo for 30 years and was a senior zookeeper, and Patience is a 41-year-old Asian elephant who had lived there since 1990.

"It's a very devastating time for our zoo family," Scott said, adding that the zoo is "well-known and well-run."

In an interview last year, another Dickerson employee, Lee Hart, told public radio station KSMU that working with elephants had inherent risks.

"I've heard people describe them as being teenagers for life. They're always trying to see how much they can be mischievous, and, due to the large size, it makes them extremely dangerous just for that aspect," he said.

"But, if you put yourself in a bad spot in the barn or in the yard you just potentially, you know, put yourself in harm's way."

But Ed Hansen of the American Association of Zoo Keepers said deaths are "extremely rare" in U.S. zoos "because of the safety features in place."

While Dickerson had a "protected contact" policy for Patience — requiring restraints or barriers — Hansen said there have been injuries even under those circumstances.

"You're talking about an animal that weighs between four and five tons — even the shifting of body weight can cause injury or death," Hansen said. "Even coming into contact with a trunk carries significant risk."

M. Alex Johnson of NBC News contributed to this report.

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