For 28 years, Mila the circus elephant was called Jumbo and traveled with New Zealand’s Weber Bros Circus. When her performance days ended, she went to live at the Franklin Zoo and Wildlife Sanctuary south of Auckland. On April 25th this year, she fatally crushed her keeper, veterinarian and zoo owner Dr. Helen Schofield.
Two years earlier, Dr. Schofield had been optimistic. The elephant was responding well to her new environment and would one day be able to integrate with other African elephants in a California sanctuary. Schofield said of her:
It is a tremendous privilege to take care of Jumbo (Mila), I feel personally humbled and flattered by the big ear flapping purrs she gives me as a greeting when I return to see her from other activities in the sanctuary. She is so affectionate and responsive. It will be a joyful day to see her develop friends of the elephant kind in the future. This is a short way off now.
On the day she was killed, Dr. Schofield had gone back into Mila’s enclosure to calm her after the shock of brushing her trunk against an electric fence. The elephant charged. Dr. Schofield ran but tripped before she reached the exit. Mila wrapped the vet in her trunk and crushed her.
The elephant’s former owner, Tony Ratcliffe, claims the problems began when the Loritz Circus bought her and then:
…dumped her on the SPCA who held her standing in her own faeces, urine and hay for three days until they called me to help. I got that situation resurrected and took her to the zoo that didn’t want me. Then they rang and said we need your help to get her out of the trailer. Now I have offered help again – they’ve got no handler that can get her out and do anything with her – I don’t even know if I can do anything with her because they have been messing with her.
Auckland SPCA executive director Bob Kerridge called the death “a tragic accident” and said he did not believe it was a deliberate attack. SAFE (Save Animals from Exploitation) director Hans Kriek had been working with the zoo to find another home for Mila. He hopes she will still be sent to the California sanctuary and said:
The ideal outcome is that Mila live the rest of her life with other elephants, to enable her to fully rehabilitate. Thatís the key thing with elephants, they need to live with other elephants because they are such social animals.
While the investigation is underway, no one can say what Mila’s fate will be, though there is a possibility she will be put down. A report in the Sydney Morning Herald says she often suffered panic attacks at night, and Dr. Schofield would comfort her.
The 39-year-old elephant spent 28 years traveling in cramped trailers, performing for audiences that probably gave little thought to her welfare in or out of the ring. Since 2009, she has lived a solitary life at the sanctuary. Her history may make it impossible for her to find peace. And nothing will bring back the woman who was trying to prepare Mila to finally enjoy life in the company of other elephants.
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Photo of baby circus elephant in training from Wikimedia Commons; photo of African elephant from alex.coles via Flickr Creative Commons