A New Zealand zookeeper killed by an African elephant had been trying to get the lonely pachyderm into an animal sanctuary because she knew it would be better off there, people who knew her said Thursday.
Mila the elephant _ known as Jumbo over three decades as a circus animal _ had lived at the Franklin Zoo near Auckland for four years as a stopgap measure until it could be relocated to a home where it could live with other African elephants. Zookeeper Helen Schofield, who owned the zoo and lived on the grounds, had hoped to soon place Mila in a sanctuary in California and had recently trained it to prepare for a long trip in a crate.
Police said the elephant killed Schofield on Wednesday. Bob Kerridge, president of the Royal New Zealand Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said several people familiar with the incident told him the elephant crushed Schofield when it picked her up in its trunk and lifted her from the ground. He said the elephant may have been startled, and actually may have been trying to defend Schofield when she died.
"It's devastating," Kerridge said. "She was a very professional person and a very caring person."
The zoo paid tribute to Schofield on its website Thursday, saying she was "incredibly passionate about the welfare of animals."
Kerridge said Schofield, a veterinarian, ran the Franklin Zoo on a shoestring budget with just a few staff members, and her death had left the zoo in "turmoil" and placed its future in doubt. Representatives from the Auckland Zoo stepped in Thursday to care for Mila, he said.
Hans Kriek, the executive director of Save Animals from Exploitation, said he had campaigned for more than 20 years to have the 39-year-old elephant released from the circus. He claimed the elephant was "psychologically damaged" after years spent shackled and confined to small spaces while traveling with the circus, but that it had gained weight and seemed to be in better spirits lately.
Mila was the only elephant at the zoo, which built a new enclosure for it in 2010.
Kriek said Schofield realized that elephants are sociable and hoped to soon place Mila at a sanctuary run by the Performing Animal Welfare Society. The group operates three California sanctuaries and cares for several African elephants. The group's founder, Pat Derby, could not be reached Thursday.
Kriek said Schofield had called him Tuesday, the day before her death.
"She was very enthusiastic and excited. She said the training had gone well, and Mila was ready to be transported overseas," Kriek said. "Helen had been crate-training her: Teaching her to walk into a crate without fear so that she'd be comfortable traveling."
African elephants are the world's largest land creatures. According to the National Geographic magazine, they can live for up to 70 years, tend to sleep very little, and eat up to 300 pounds (136 kilograms) of food every day.
Follow Nick Perry on Twitter at http://twitter.com/nickgbperry