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Details Sought in Death of Senior Springfield Zookeeper, Killed by Elephant

Dickerson Park Zoo
Photo credit: Scott Harvey

An elephant feeding at Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield turned deadly Friday as a senior zookeeper was killed.

Update: 8:04 p.m. Saturday: The City of Springfield Friday evening released more details of that morning’s incident which killed John Phillip Bradford, a 30 year employee of Dickerson Park Zoo.

Bradford, along with two other zookeepers, were with Patience, a 41-year-old female elephant, inside the elephant barn. They were moving her from the barn stalls into a chute, which connects the barn to the yard. According to a release by the city, Patience hesitated in the chute, and Bradford was coaxing her forward.

“Bradford leaned into the chute, reaching for her with a guide. The animal suddenly lunged forward, knocking Bradford down, into the chute. The animal then crushed Bradford against the floor, killing him instantly.”

The city says that zookeepers reported that Patience’s behavior had been hesitant and submissive since the Oct. 4 death of Connie (Pinky), the elephant herd’s matriarch. They were watching her carefully, because of this behavior.

This adjustable chute, which can be widened or narrowed, is about 12 feet long. The city notes that during zookeeper's two scheduled inspections every day, a narrow chute is useful for them to hold the animal. The chute’s walls are made of 6-inch round metal bars, about 10 feet tall, spaced about 15 inches apart — wide enough for a human to walk through, but narrow enough to restrain an elephant.

In addition to the city’s internal investigation, there will be other investigations by appropriate oversight agencies, including the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Accreditation Commission.

Update at 2:28 p.m. Friday: Springfield City Spokeswoman Cora Scott said in a statement that 62-year-old John Phillip Bradford died when a female elephant named Patience made a sudden movement, fatally injuring him.

Bradford, a 30 year employee of the zoo, was in the process of feeding the elephant, inside a container away from public view.

“It’s a really tight knit family here at Dickerson Park Zoo. Very well experienced animal handlers, and like I said nationally accredited. And so this is just a very devastating time for them,” Scott said.

A release states that zookeepers had been keeping a close eye on Patience and the other female elephant, Moola, following the Oct. 4 death of the zoo’s matriarch elephant, Pinky, who died from kidney disease. The zoo has announced there will be no disciplinary action taken against Patience, and she will not be euthanized.

The US Department of Agriculture, which issues animal exhibit licenses, has been notified by Dickerson Park Zoo of the incident. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, through which the zoo has had full accreditation since 1986, has also been notified. The organization sets the standards for elephant management and care.

Chaplains are on-site assisting staff, but the zoo remains open to visitors, which Scott says was the desire of the zoo's dedicated team of employees.

“Who, for the most part, have dedicated their lives to taking care of animals and providing this service to the community, so they felt very strongly that they wanted to keep the zoo open.”

Original story:

62-year-old John Phillip Bradford is said to have suffered severe head trauma and died this morning. According to Lisa Cox, public affairs officer with the Springfield Police Department, Bradford was in the process of feeding a female elephant named Patience, age 41, who had been at the zoo since 1990. Two co-workers witnessed the event.

Bradford was a 30 year employee of the zoo.

“This is very sad day for the Zoo family, as well as our community as a whole,” said Mike Crocker, assistant parks director / zoo director, in a joint statement by the zoo and City of Springfield.

Exact details of the incident were not immediately clear, but officials are calling it an industrial accident. Police were dispatched to the site at around 8:44 a.m., according to Cox.

“It happened before they [the zoo] were open, and actually not even in a public area of the zoo. It’s in an elephant container that’s kind of off to the side in a closed area from the public area,” Cox said.

Officials say that chaplains are assisting staff, and the zoo remains open to visitors.