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Elephants Kill Zookeeper at Animal Park : Accidents: Keeper apparently was trapped when she tried to prevent a fight over territory. Hers is the first animal-related death in the park’s 18-year history.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A 27-year-old animal keeper was killed Thursday at the San Diego Wild Animal Park after she apparently became caught between two battling Asian elephants, authorities said.

Pamela C. Orsi of Ramona, who had been an elephant keeper at the park for one year, died of extensive head injuries. Orsi had been a zookeeper for six years and worked with elephants for the last four years, including three years at the Bronx Zoo in New York.

Orsi’s death is the first animal-related fatality in the Wild Animal Park’s 18-year history. The last such death at the San Diego Zoo, also run by the San Diego Zoological Society, was in the early 1940s, when a zookeeper was killed by a leopard, said Jeff Jouett, spokesman for the society.

There were no reported witnesses to the incident, but park officials said Orsi apparently stepped between two female Asian elephants to break up a fight. Another elephant keeper, Dusty Janeke, was in the same compound at the time and overheard the encounter, said Tom Hanscom, public relations manager for the park.

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Hanscom appealed for any park visitors who might have witnessed the incident to come forward.

“Any time there’s an accident, particularly one as serious as this, we stop and look at our policies and procedures. But the problem here is, we don’t know what happened, so we don’t know what to look at,” Jouett said.

A Bronx Zoo official who once worked with Orsi said late Thursday that he had been contacted by park officials here who stressed that Orsi’s death had not been the result of an elephant attack, but rather an accident.

Hanscom said Orsi and Janeke were in the 3-acre compound as part of routine, daily monitoring of the elephants.

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Neither of the two elephants involved, Alice and Cha Cha, had been subject to any disciplinary measures or had exhibited behavioral abnormalities, he said. “They are two elephants in the herd that are exceedingly mild,” Hanscom said.

One zoo official said, however, that Alice had been behaving more aggressively in the last two weeks.

Jouett said the Wild Animal Park’s and San Diego Zoo’s policy on combative elephants is for their keepers to intervene only if one of the animals is in danger of being seriously injured.

Hanscom said elephants are constantly contesting the pecking order of the herd, and this incident may have been one in which Alice, who has been on loan to the park from the Rio Grande Zoo in Albuquerque, N.M., for two years, and Cha Cha were vying for a higher rung in the pecking order.

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“Usually, it’s just a knock on the trunk, or someone tries to steal someone’s food, but sometimes it gets out of hand,” Hanscom said. “They can hit with the force that would be a shove to another elephant, but could kill a human being.”

“It’s the job of the zookeeper to step in and make sure the elephants do not injure themselves,” Hanscom said.

Jouett said that, over the past two weeks, Alice had become more aggressive toward the other eight female elephants in her enclosure. It was unclear, he said, whether Alice was trying to promote herself within the elephant hierarchy or was fending off a challenge by Cha Cha.

It was also unclear Thursday, given the absence of witnesses, just how quickly--and with what technique--Orsi intervened.

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“It’s highly likely that Pam stepped in to protect one of the elephants,” Jouett said.

Hanscom said the 5-foot-10 Orsi, like all elephant keepers at the park, held only an ankus--a 3-foot-long wooden stick with a metal hook with which to guide and prod the elephants. He said elephant keepers rely primarily on verbal commands to control the 4-ton animals.

The proper way to intervene in a dispute between elephants has been the focus of debate among elephant keepers nationwide, zoo officials say.

Officials at Portland’s Metro Washington Park Zoo said two of their keepers have been injured by elephants in recent months, according to Mike Keele, the assistant curator.

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“There are different ways of breaking up elephant fights, depending on the keeper’s relationship with the animals,” Keele said. “Sometimes, shouting is enough, or throwing food out. A fire hose might break them up, or even a regular hose and just getting them wet. Sometimes you might use a fire extinguisher, or fire an empty tranquilizer pistol, because even the noise might distract them.”

An elephant hooks, or ankus, can be hooked around the elephant’s leg to pull him backward.

“It’s a big concern among professionals nationwide today, about how and when to break up elephants,” Keele said. “The general rule of thumb here is, we don’t want keepers dead. We don’t want them doing anything that would put them in that kind of peril.”

On the other hand, Keele and San Diego’s Jouett said, keepers want to try to intervene if they can do it safely, and if there is the danger one of the animals might seriously injure the other.

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“There’s not an elephant keeper at the zoo, or the Wild Animal Park or, I venture to say, anywhere in the country who hasn’t been injured by an elephant, one time or another,” Jouett said.

“Elephants are known to cause more injuries and deaths to keepers than any other animal, by far.”

The most recent death of a zookeeper from an elephant occurred in January, when a veteran animal keeper at Oakland’s Knowland Park Zoo was attacked and killed by an African male elephant, apparently without provocation.

James Doherty, general curator at the Bronx Zoo and a former colleague of Orsi, said he received a call from a curator at the Wild Animal Park who explained that Orsi’s death was an accident--and not the result of an elephant attack.

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“He said he wanted to let us know right away that this was not an elephant attack,” Doherty said. “When you’re working with elephants, you know that there’s always one dominant elephant and one that wants to be dominant among the group.

“This sort of thing happens. It sounds like Pam was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I understand what she was trying to do. It sounds like a freak accident.”

Doherty recalled Orsi as a happy-go-lucky woman whose sole professional passion was elephants.

“Pam loved elephants--she loved to work with elephants,” he said. “She wanted to work in San Diego because it would give her an opportunity to work all day, every day with elephants.”

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Doherty said Orsi went to work at the Bronx Zoo in 1984 shortly after graduating from Cornell University.

“She was a New Yorker,” he said. “She regretted leaving. But we just don’t have that kind of facility. We don’t have specific groups of keepers to give her the constant access to elephants she wanted.”

Last year, he recalled, Orsi told him she had applied for a keeper’s job at the Wild Animal Park. “I gave her a good reference,” he said. “I told them that Pam was very good at what she did and that we were very happy with her.

“She was a very vibrant, very alive, very upbeat woman who was always smiling, always in a good mood. And she wanted nothing more in the world than to work with elephants.”

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