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Death of Woman Crushed By Elephant Ruled Accident, Animal Will Not Be Destroyed

The death of a handler who was knocked down and crushed by an elephant has been ruled an accident, and the animal will not be destroyed.

Joanna Burke, 36, was killed Friday at The Elephant Sanctuary, a nonprofit institution about 60 miles from Nashville.

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the Sheriff's Department investigated, found that the sanctuary was in compliance with all regulations and called Burke's death an accident.

Carol Buckley, the sanctuary's executive director and co-founder, said Monday that Burke was hosing down the elephant, Winkie, and walked around to the animal's side to look at a swollen eyelid believed to have been caused by an insect bite.

"Without warning, Winkie spun around and struck Joanna across the chest and face," she said. "Joanna fell backward and Winkie stepped on her, killing her instantly."

Buckley said that from now on, handlers must have a barrier between them and the elephants when they are touching them.

As for putting the elephant to death, Buckley said: "These animals are not in the public. The people who go through that fence into the sanctuary go knowing the dangers that exist. Second, this is an endangered species and it's illegal to kill them."

While at a zoo in Madison, Wis., Winkie hurt several staffers and visitors and was considered a dangerous elephant, according to the sanctuary's Web site.

Burke will be buried on the grounds of the sanctuary, as she had requested.