LOS ANGELES (AP) – An African elephant is still welcome at a California sanctuary after killing a zookeeper who was preparing to move the animal from New Zealand, the sanctuary owner said Thursday.
Pat Derby’s Performing Animal Welfare Society in San Andreas was going to be home to the 39-year-old elephant now called Mila after being known as Jumbo during nearly 30 years with the circus.
However, its fate is uncertain after Helen Schofield, a veterinarian and owner of Franklin Zoo near Auckland, was crushed to death Wednesday.
“We will have to negotiate with whoever becomes her new owner,” Derby said.
For the past four years, Mila has been at the zoo while Schofield worked to place her elsewhere. Derby said she and Schofield had been working on the move for about two years.
Schofield was training Mila to live in a crate during the trip. She exchanged emails with Derby a month ago saying the training was going well and she was feeling good about the move.
“We didn’t actually have a date,” Derby said. “It was sort of whenever crate training was finished and they felt she was comfortable enough to make the trip.”
Hans Kriek, executive director of Save Animals from Exploitation, said he talked to Schofield the day before she died and she told him she believed Mila was ready to ship.
Bob Kerridge, president of the Royal New Zealand Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, called Schofield’s death devastating.
“Dr. Schofield’s commitment to the care and well-being of Mila was clearly evident in her work with her and was indeed inspirational,” Derby said.
Kerridge said Schofield ran her zoo on a shoestring budget with a handful of staff members. As a result, her death left its future in doubt.
Mila was being cared for by the Auckland Zoo after the death of Schofield.
Derby said she didn’t know any details about the accident and no one from New Zealand had called.
“All elephants, particularly Africans, suffer from PTSD,” Derby said. “They’re captured from the wild. The capture usually involves killing their whole family unit, which is a terrible drama. They all suffer horrendous physical and psychological problems. You just never know when it will express itself.”
In addition, Derby said she is sure the stress of circus life contributed to the trauma of adjusting for Mila.
In San Andreas, near Sacramento in Northern California, where Mila was headed, three African elephants are kept separate from other elephants, Derby said.
“We always keep safe distances and safety barriers between the elephants and the people so there’s no opportunity for accidents to happen,” she said.
Elephants are social creatures and there was concern Mila had been lonely. “She’s been alone most of her life in that circus. I’m sure she was adjusted to it,” Derby said.
African elephants, the world’s largest land creatures, live to be 60 or 70 years old in the wild, but in captivity, 50 is quite old, Derby said.
If Mila does end up coming to California, she will have large grassy areas for roaming, access to a 20,000 square-foot barn with heated floors, and an elephant Jacuzzi, Derby said.
“It’s not the wild, but it’s very nice for elephants in captivity,” she said.
Transporting an elephant halfway around the world is extremely tricky, Derby said.
Flying is the fastest way but also the most expensive and “I don’t know what the funding issue is there,” Derby said.
If a ship and truck are used, it’s a “long, long journey,” she said.
Once an elephant leaves on such a trip, it is stuck in the crate until it arrives, she said.
Mila was the only elephant at the Franklin Zoo, which built a new enclosure for her in 2010.
Associated Press Writer Nick Perry in Wellington, New Zealand, contributed to this report.
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