Vet killed while prepping elephant for retirement
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 2012:
Vet killed while prepping elephant for retirement
TUAKU, New Zealand–-Helen Schofield, 42, owner, director, and veterinarian at the Franklin Zoo & Wildlife Sanctuary in Tuaku, New Zealand, was on April 25, 2012 fatally crushed by Mila, 39,
an African elephant whom Schofield was preparing for eventual relocation to the Performing Animal Welfare Society’s 2,3000-acre elephant sanctuary in northern California.
The New Zealand Herald reported conflicting versions of the fatal incident.
“It’s understood Dr. Schofield had been in the enclosure just before the incident and had been speaking to zoo-goers about Mila,” wrote Andrew Koubaridis of the New Zealand Herald on April 27, 2012.
“She left the enclosure, but went back inside with a bucket of fruit to try to calm Mila down after someone reported that the elephant suddenly jumped at least one meter sideways,” after suffering an electric shock from touching a perimeter fence.
“Mila put her head down and advanced, slowly at first, but with increasing speed,” Koubaridis continued. “Dr. Schofield turned and ran–but tripped about a meter from the enclosure’s exit. The
Herald understands Mila used her trunk to pull Dr. Schofield back by the leg, wrapped her trunk around the vet’s midsection, and picked her up. Onlookers said Dr. Schofield was able to speak and calmly called the command to put her down. Mila eventually knelt and pushed her trunk down on a bank in the enclosure, as Dr. Schofield asked to be let go. When Mila finally released Dr. Schofield, she was still talking and was seen to move. Mila backed away, but then moved toward her again and repeatedly brushed her trunk up against her–and she didn’t move again.”
Michael Dickison, also of the New Zealand Herald, reported a different version the following day. “A witness to the fatal accident says the elephant was triggered to kneel down, crushing her
keeper, by what appeared to be a misinterpreted circus command,” Dickison wrote. “‘Put me down, Mila,’ Dr. Helen Schofield was heard saying as she patted the elephant’s head. Mila obeyed by going
down on her knees–crushing Dr Schofield.” The witness, whom Dickison said declined to be named, said Mila did not attack Schofield, Mila had not touched an electric fence, and Schofield
had backed away from her, not run.
Schofield bought the Franklin Zoo, located about halfway between Auckland and Hamilton, in 2005. Schofield lived on the Franklin Zoo premises with her mother and sister. In 2006 Schofield
bought and retired from performance the last circus lions in New Zealand, two females named Ruby and Jade. The zoo collection currently includes Ruby, Jade having died, plus monkeys, otters,
zebras, emus, and a bobcat.
Schofield had announced plans for the zoo to expand to add a veterinary clinic, wild bird rehabilitation center, and a 70-acre “sustainable native bush corridor,” as a joint project with the New Zealand Department of Conservation. But New Zealand SPCA executive director Bob Kerridge told the New Zealand Herald that Schofield’s death left the zoo in “turmoil” and placed its future in doubt.
Kerridge said Auckland Zoo personnel had taken over the daily care of Mila. Hans Kriek, executive director of Save Animals from Exploitation, told The Dominion Post of Christchurch that he had campaigned for more than 20 years to have Mila retired from performing. Kriek told The Dominion Post that only the day before Mila killed Schofield, Schofield told him that Mila was ready to be transported to PAWS. “Helen had been crate-training her,” Kriek explained, “teaching her to walk into a crate without fear so that she’d be comfortable traveling.”
“We didn’t actually have a date” for Mila to be flown to PAWS, PAWS founder Pat Derby told Sue Manning of Associated Press.
“It was sort of whenever crate training was finished and they felt she was comfortable enough to go.”
“Helen Schofield’s dream,” Derby added to Chris Biele of KTXL-TV news in Sacramento, was that “she wanted Mila to come here and be with other elephants.” Derby pledged “to keep going forward with plans to get Mila to California,” Biele reported. PAWS is seeking to raise $100,000 to fund the relocation, which would probably not be done until after PAWS receives three African
elephants from the Toronto Zoo. That move, in planning since October 2011, is being funded by retired TV game show host Bob Barker.
“Helen Schofield will be remembered with the highest regard by elephant care-giver professionals around the world,” Derby posted to the PAWS web site. But four elephant care professionals who knew Mila during her circus career alleged that Schofield made critical mistakes.
Born in Kenya in 1973, Mila was at age nine months captured and acquired by the London Zoo. Mila was transferred to the Honolulu Zoo in Hawaii, then was sold in 1978 to the Whirling Brothers
Circus, founded in 1969 by brothers Tony and Robin Ratcliffe of New Zealand.
The Honolulu Zoo called the elephant Mele Kahea– similar to Mila. The Ratcliffes called her Jumbo. Unclear is whether Jumbo became her working name, or was just her performing name.
Performing elephants typically are advertised and introduced to crowds under one name, to which they will not respond if the name is shouted by strangers, but are handled by a different name, less
likely to be heard from a stranger. Commands are also often given in a language that the elephant is unlikely to hear from strangers.
The Auckland Zoo, for instance, reportedly trains elephants to respond only to commands given in Hindi.
Dissolving the Whirling Brothers Circus in 2007, the Ratcliffes sold Mila to the Weber Brothers Circus in 2007, after a failed attempt to retire her to the Western Plains Zoo near Dubbo, New South Wales, Australia. Tony Ratcliffe continued as her trainer, handling her for 31 years altogether. Mila toured with the Loritz Circus until 2009. Turned over to the New Zealand SPCA in
late 2009, Mila remained in SPCA custody but was housed at the Franklin Zoo until she could be moved to a sanctuary.
“Loritz Circus were meant to build a place for her and it didn’t eventuate,” Tony Ratcliffe told Radio New Zealand after Scofield’s death. “They dumped her on the SPCA, who held her standing in her own faeces, urine and hay for three days,” Ratcliffe alleged, “until they called me to help. I got that situation resurrected and took her to the (Franklin) zoo that didn’t want me. Then they rang and said we need your help to get her out of the trailer.”
There was a long history of friction between the circus handlers and Schofield, who reportedly told a group of about 50 visitors only two-and-a-half hours before her death that she first met Mila in 1990, and believed Mila had been traumatized by circus life. This had included the Ratcliffes’ use of the ankus, or “bullhook,” commonly used by circus elephant trainers but prohibited at PAWS and the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee.
After Schofield’s death, “Tony Ratcliffe’s lawyer Cheryl Simes said–via press release–that she had contacted Helen Schofield on Ratcliffe’s behalf last week after Schofield made ‘defamatory’ statements regarding the elephant’s care and condition before she arrived at Auckland’s Franklin Zoo,” reported Louise Risk of the Dominion Post.
“I had hoped to be able to discuss this with Helen Schofield,” Tony Ratcliffe told Risk. “I know we had different views about circus animals. I had hoped we could get the facts straight about Jumbo’s background, and then agree to disagree about wider issues, and maybe work together for what was best for Jumbo in her particular situation. Tragically we have lost that opportunity.”
“Many reasons can be found for accidents and elephant attacks,” Tony Ratcliffe continued. “I do not and will not subscribe to the theory that they don’t attack unless they have been mistreated.” Tony Ratcliffe cited a 1954 incident at the Auckland Zoo, in which an elephant named Jamuna killed handler Frank Lane.
“Allegations have been repeated through the years–and recently on television–that Jumbo was mistreated while in the circus,” Tony Ratcliffe said. “I reject those allegations completely. I have
handled and worked with over 40 elephants in both circuses and zoos, and the elephants I have been involved with have all had very good handling right from an early age.”
His brother, Robin Ratcliffe, founder of the Hamil-ton engineering firm Modern Transport Engineers, suggested that Mila was most traumatized by prolonged separation from Tony Ratcliffe,
who had been prohibited from visiting her.
Shortly after Schofield’s death, Tony and Robin Ratcliffe were refused entry to the Franklin Zoo, the New Zealand Herald reported.
The Ratcliffes’ contentions were reinforced by former Whirling Brothers Circus magician Evelyn Strugnell, of Palmerston North. Strugnell “rode, performed with, and walked Mila,” wrote Jessica Sutton of the Manawatu Standard. Strugnell “did acts where the elephant would walk over her,” Sutton recalled.
“They should never have changed her name,” Strugnell opined, though whether Mila’s working name was actually changed is unclear.
“It’s like a dog,” Strugnell said. “if you change its name, when you call out the new name these animals don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Former Franklin Zoo elephant handler Bruce Ireland told the New Zealand Herald that “Mila showed aggressive and unsettled behavior,” in his experience with her. “Ireland worked at Auckland Zoo for 27 years, 18 of them with its elephants, and said he was brought in because Dr. Schofield had no experience dealing with elephants,” the New Zealand Herald said. According to the New Zealand Herald, Ireland “worked with Dr. Schofield for about three months when Mila arrived at Franklin Zoo, but lost his job because the zoo could not afford to keep him on.”
Said Ireland, “You never went in with her–because she was just too dangerous. It was a case of there was one guy, Tony Ratcliffe, who could handle her, and he was the only one who could handle her.”