Joanna Burke

Tearful Handler: 'In 45 Seconds, It Was Over'

July 25, 2006
By Leon Alligood, Staff Writer

Killer Elephant Reacted to Eye Exam

HOHENWALD, Tenn. - In an instant, the elephant with the docile name of Winkie lashed out at the woman who fed her, gave her water to drink, loved her and solicited prayers for her.

"In 45 seconds it was over. It just happened so quickly,'' said Scott Blais, who was there last Friday morning in a remote section of The Elephant Sanctuary's 2,200 acres when Winkie knocked down Joanna Burke, 36, then stepped on her, killing the experienced handler almost instantly.

Blais spoke publicly for the first time about the incident at a midday press conference Monday outside the Sanctuary's gates in rural Lewis County.

The pair of elephant handlers was on morning water patrol, giving the animals a squirt from a water hose attached to a portable tank, when the attack occurred.

Blais said there was nothing in the animal's demeanor that indicated something was amiss.

"There was not a moment when I knew that something was wrong, that maybe we should back up,'' he said.

Joanna with Bunny
Joanna Burke pets Asian elephant Bunny at the Elephant Sanctuary
in Hohenwald, Tenn. Burke was killed by the elephant Winkie.
(File / Chicago Tribune)

Joanna Burke's Parents
Carol Burke, left, holds husband Paul Burke's hand during a news conference
Monday about the death of their daughter Joanna Burke, an elephant caregiver
at The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald. (Sanford Myers / The Tennesean)

Scott Blais
Facilities Director Scot Blais' left ankle was broken when he tried to
save elephant caregiver Joanna Burke on Friday at the sanctuary.
(Sanford Myers / The Tennesean)

"I wish there were, I wish there was something we could put our finger on and say, well, if we had done something differently this wouldn't have happened, but I can't."

Overnight, Winkie's right eyelid had swelled, a result of what is believed to be an insect bite, perhaps by fire ants. Blais, co-founder of the Sanctuary, had already examined the eye, which he said was tender to the touch. Afterward, Blais sat on the rear of the water trailer while Burke handed the water hose to the elephant.

"Winkie was calm," Blais said.

However, when Burke, who has been a handler for about eight years, moved to Winkie's right-hand side to look at the swollen eye, Blais said, the animal spun its massive head around, knocking her backward. Then the 7,600-pound animal moved forward and crushed the woman to death.

Acting by instinct, Blais spoke to Winkie, trying to distract and calm the animal. In the process, the elephant lashed out at him, too, breaking Blais' left ankle and bruising him in several places.

Recounting his story for reporters, Blais often wiped away tears. More flowed a few minutes later when Mark Burke, brother of the dead woman, thanked Blais for putting his life in jeopardy to help save his sister.

"You did everything you could,'' said Mark Burke, hugging Blais.

Joanna Burke's father and mother, Paul and Carol of Mansfield, Mass., also addressed reporters for the first time Monday.

Paul Burke recalled the time his daughter told him she was quitting graduate school, even though she was only a semester away from an advanced degree in communications.

"'I'm going to help animals,' she told me. I told her there's no money in animals. That did not matter to her,'' the father said.

"She found the Sanctuary and I was so pleased that she was contributing in a way that was meaningful. I'm so proud of my daughter."

Carol Burke took comfort her daughter "was happy here."

Paul Burke said her daughter often asked him to pray for the elephants. "She loved her girls,'' he said.

On Monday, officials of The Elephant Sanctuary announced changes in the facility's protocol for physical contact with Winkie.

"We will never allow another handler to have physical contact out there with an elephant that has a history" of aggression, said Carol Buckley, executive director of the facility for aging elephants on 2,200 acres in Lewis County.

In the future, Buckley said, only she and Blais will place themselves in such proximity to Winkie and any other elephant that has a history of aggressive behavior.

Winkie came to The Elephant Sanctuary in 2000 after spending about 30 years at a zoo in Madison, Wis. There she had a history of attacking handlers.

"These animals are the way they are because of human interference," Blais said.

At Monday's press conference, The Elephant sanctuary announced that Winkie would not be euthanized for killing her handler, a decision the Burkes endorsed.

"She would not want punitive action taken against Winkie, against any elephant on the Sanctuary,'' said Mark Burke.

"We're in total agreement," added Carol Burke.

A funeral service for Joanna Burke will be held Wednesday at McDonald Funeral Home, 20 West 2nd St. in Hohenwald. Visitation will be from 9 a.m. until 11 a.m. and the funeral will begin at 11 a.m. At 12:30 p.m., a picnic to celebrate Burke's life will be held at Meriwether Lewis Park just off the Natchez Trace Parkway.

Burke will be buried in a private sunset ceremony on the grounds of The Elephant Sanctuary.

"It was what she wanted,'' said her father.