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More Details Released on Elephant Zookeeper Death

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – It’s a tragic day at Dickerson Park Zoo. A veteran zookeeper and elephant manager was killed when the elephant made a sudden movement, fatally injuring the zookeeper.
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – It’s a tragic day at Dickerson Park Zoo. A veteran zookeeper and elephant manager was killed when the elephant made a sudden movement, fatally injuring the zookeeper.

John Bradford, 62, had been with the park for 30 years and was instrumental in the Dickerson Park Zoo's nationally-known elephant program.

Dickerson Park Zoo workers consider each other more friends and family than they do coworkers and this is the second major loss in this family in just a week.

Within the last week the zoo lost the 50-year-old matriarch of their elephant family. Connie, also called Pinky, was euthanized due to failing health. Elephant experts say the matriarch is the core of the elephant family and that loss alone would upset the balance.

Additional details became available Friday night and provide more details to paint a better picture in the incident that took Bradford’s life.

According to a statement from Dickerson Park Zoo, zookeepers were in the elephant barn around 8:45 a.m. Friday working to move Patience, a 41-year-old elephant, from the barn stalls into a chute, which connects the barn to the elephant yard.

Elephants are moved through the chute several times a day, and, according to zookeepers, there was nothing unusual about this movement from the barn.

Zookeepers have reported that Patience’s behavior has been hesitant and submissive since Oct. 4, when the elephant herd’s matriarch, Connie died.

Due to this behavior, the zookeepers were reportedly observing Patience more carefully.

At the time of the incident, three zookeepers were present; a minimum of two zookeepers are required to be present when approaching the protective barrier in the elephant barn.

According to the statement, Bradford was coaxing Patience forward into the chute after she hesitated. He leaned into the chute, reaching for her with a guide. The elephant suddenly lunged forward, which knocked Bradford down into the chute.

Patience crushed Bradford against the floor, killing him instantly.

The other zookeepers in attendance moved quickly to pull the elephant away from Bradford. The incident was over in a manner of seconds, according to the statement.

It is reported that Bradford’s actions were consistent with zoo policies and AZA Guidelines for Elephant Management and Care.

In 2010, John Bradford did an interview with KOLR10 about the danger or working with large animals. In that interview, elephant manager Bradford made clear he knew the rewards and the risks of his job.

"There is an inherent risk in working at a zoo but the deal is, you want to minimize those risks," said Bradford in the interview.

Bradford also knew what was there to protect the zookeepers.

"Built in our facilities we have safety precautions, we have a barrier between the elephants and ourselves,” he said. “The problem is, you have to take care of the animals, you have to get your hands on them, you have to draw blood, you have to do exams stuff like that, but you have to do it safely."

City Spokesperson Cora Scott says this is a sad day for the zoo and for the community.

Though the incident took seconds, the investigation will take hours, days or even weeks.

"Police are still investigating all of the details," says Scott.

Along with local investigators, federal officials and national accrediting boards will now examine Dickerson Park Zoo and the incident.

A statement from the City and Dickerson Park Zoo says no disciplinary action will be taken with the animal and she will not be euthanized.

The zoo is focusing on offering support to staff members, who are grieving the loss of a co-worker. In a statement, the Zoo says their highest priority now is supporting staff members, friends and family through the loss of Bradford.

On Friday, chaplains with the Springfield Police Department, who responded to the initial call of the accident, remained at the Zoo to counsel staff.

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