TOLEDO, Ohio – An elephant that knocked down and injured his trainer at an Ohio zoo charged the keeper twice and pinned him in the corner after being startled by his arrival in the enclosure, a security video released Wednesday shows.
The frightening encounter shows the keeper trying to protect himself as the elephant lowered its head, its tusks narrowly missing the man's head and chest.
The elephant then backed away as the keeper stumbled out.
The keeper, Don Redfox, has been hospitalized with life-threatening injuries since the attack three weeks ago. Doctors have upgraded his condition and expect him to recover from two punctured lungs and several fractured ribs.
Redfox and his family initially fought the video's release but changed their minds to show that the animal wasn't mistreated.
The family said it continues to believe that "releasing the security tape does nothing more than provide an opportunity to sensationalize a tragic accident."
Anne Baker, the zoo's director, said it's not clear why the elephant, named Louie, turned on the keeper. The elephant and Redfox had been together nearly every day since the animal's birth seven years ago.
It looks as if Louie was startled and then started play-fighting, as elephants do in the wild, Baker said.
Redfox makes it a habit to talk to the animals before he approaches so he doesn't surprise them, Baker said. She thinks he didn't do it this time because he didn't know Louie was around the corner when he walked into the enclosure carrying a bag of carrots.
"Neither expected the other to be there," Baker said.
They both backed away. Louie flared his ears and moved toward the keeper, pushing toward Redfox before the keeper stepped safely behind a gate and closed it.
Redfox returned and tried to move the elephant away with a pole with a hook on the end. That's when the elephant charged, pinning him in the corner and knocking him to his knees.
Louie backed up, dropped to his knees, and then charged again at Redfox, who curled up and tried to shield himself. After that, the elephant backed away again and Redfox stumbled to safety.
Baker said the elephant could have killed Redfox at any time, and that is why she and another elephant expert who reviewed the video think that Louie was play-fighting.
"The problem is Louie weighs over 4,000 pounds," she said.
Zoo officials have not been able to talk with Redfox, who faces a long recovery, according to his doctors.
Baker praised Redfox's knowledge of elephants and wouldn't criticize his decision to go into enclosure after he first startled the elephant.
"I'm not going to speculate on that because we don't know the why," she said. "The keeper has to do a good job of reading the animal and determine what's safe."
Louie has been the face of the zoo since he was born in Toledo in April 2003, becoming just the 38th African elephant born in captivity in the United States.
When he was first shown to the public, there were two-hour lines just to get a three-minute glimpse. He was on billboards and sweat shirts that said "He has his mother's nose." Visitors could buy a DVD that showed Louie's first steps.
But as he's grown older, Louie has become more aggressive, like most male elephants. He can also be a bit annoying and push things to far, Baker said.
"He's a young male," she said.