Animal Rights

Tragic Death of Elephant Handler Was Avoidable

| by PETA

PETA has asked officials with Tennessee's Division of Occupational Safety and Health to penalize the Knoxville Zoo for repeatedly allowing handlers to come into direct contact with the elephants there. Handler Stephanie James was crushed to death when an elephant named Edie pushed her into a bar in her enclosure in January.

sdixclifford/cc by 2.0

Despite a previous elephant attack at the zoo that resulted in injuries to at least two other handlers, the zoo refused to switch to the "protected contact" system of handling elephants—a much safer and more humane way of interacting with captive elephants. Protected contact, which is already being used by the majority of the accredited zoos in the country, involves the use of a barrier between elephants and handlers at all times. No bullhooks are used to punish and control elephants.


Zoos that have switched to protected contact report that the elephants' freedom to make choices about their lives has had a dramatic impact on the elephants' emotional well-being and reduces their aggression. The elephants are far more relaxed and content, and the system is far safer for zoo employees as well. The risk of human injury or death is nearly eliminated since there is little actual human-elephant contact.


After James' death, the Knoxville Zoo temporarily implemented protected contact. Let's hope that our call for action will prompt the zoo to make that change permanent.


Written by Jennifer O'Connor