John Phillip Bradford, 62, manager of elephants at Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, Missouri, was trying to coax Patience to go through a chute connecting the elephant barn and yards when the elephant knocked him into the chute and crushed him against the floor, NBC News reports.
Bradford died instantly, said Cora Scott, the spokesperson for the City. "The whole incident took place in a matter of seconds.”
Bradford had not violated any of the zoo’s policies in handling the animal for which he had deep personal affection, according to reports.
Scott clarified an earlier report that Patience had “charged” Bradford, stating that Patience "lunged forward" in the narrow chute as Bradford was leaning in to guide her. Other zookeepers quickly pulled the animal away from Bradford, she said.
Scott said Patience had been "hesitant and submissive" since the death Oct. 4 of the herd's matriarch, known both as Connie (or Pinky), who had been suffering from kidney disease and had lost nearly 1,000 pounds. Connie was euthanized because she could not longer get to her feet after lying down, according to AFP.
In a statement Friday afternoon, the City said no disciplinary action would be taken against Patience, adding: "The animal will not be euthanized."
An Association of Zoos and Aquariums reported last year that Patience and sister elephant, Moola, "have a history of aggression toward handlers."
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."