Joanna Burke

Handler's Death Ruled Accidental: Elephant Won't Be Euthanized

Posted July 21, 2006
Updated July 25, 2006

HOHENWALD, Tenn. -- The death of a handler killed by an elephant at a Tennessee sanctuary has been ruled an accident, and the directors of the refuge have decided not to euthanize the animal.

Elephant Sanctuary Workers Speak About Tragedy

(Courtesy WSMV)

Joanna Burke of Hohenwald was killed Friday at The Elephant Sanctuary in Lewis County after an Asian elephant knocked her down and then stepped on her, Carol Buckley, the sanctuary's executive director and co-founder, said Monday.

Burke, who was hosing down the elephant named Winkie, had walked around to the elephant's right side to look at a swollen eyelid believed to have been caused by an insect bite, Buckley said.

"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."

Facilities director Scott Blais, who first noticed the elephant's swollen eye,
sustained a broken ankle, cuts and bruises when he tried to help Burke, officials said.

Buckley said Burke wasn't going to touch the elephant's eye because Blais had already inspected it.

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the Lewis County Sheriff's Department have investigated the incident and found that the sanctuary is in full compliance with all regulations. They called Burke's death an accident.

However, Buckley said, the incident has prompted more safety measures for handlers. From now on, she said handlers must have a barrier between them and the elephants when they are physically touching them.

As for euthanizing the elephant, the sanctuary directors said Burke would not have wanted that.

"These animals are not in the public," Buckley said. "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."

Added Blais: "As soon as the elephants step foot onto the sanctuary grounds, their life is sacred. They're here to recover."

While at the Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison, Wis., Winkie hurt several staffers and visitors, earning a reputation as a "dangerous elephant," according to her biography on the sanctuary's Web site.

Blais said that there was no indication before the elephant attacked that would have given the handlers warning that the elephant was angry or upset.

"Winkie was not in her right mind," Blais said. "For a lack of a better word, she was in an altered state."

Buckley said the elephant's previous conditions at the zoo, where she was chained up for days straight, could have created a symptom like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

"It is the condition in which captive elephants live causes daily trauma, then add on top of that these animals are managed through physical dominance," Buckley said.

Buckley said the sanctuary is beginning a study on how trauma can affect elephants. Many of the elephants at the sanctuary have circus or performance backgrounds.

Handler Killed At Elephant Sanctuary

Burke, 36, had been the primary caregiver for the Asian elephants at the sanctuary for eight years. She was from Mansfield, Mass., where her parents, Paul and Carol Burke, still live and a graduate of Mansfield High School and Bridgewater State College. She was born in Bridgeport, Conn.

Burke was a graduate student at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro getting her master's degree in communications when she decided she wanted to work with animals instead.

"When she found the sanctuary, I was so pleased that she was contributing in way that was meaningful to her," her father said. "And the more I heard from her, listened to her and talked with her, I could tell it was meaningful for the elephants, too."

The family supported the directors' decision not to euthanize Winkie and said it would have been Joanna's wish for the elephant to not be harmed.

Joanna's brother, Mark Burke, thanked Blais for risking his life trying to save her.

"Joanna was aware of Winkie's unique situation," he said. "She knew that those situations can cause the elephants to behave differently or even act unpredictably."

Funeral services for Burke are planned Wednesday morning in Hohenwald with a memorial service at Meriwether Lewis Park to follow.

Burke will be buried on the grounds of the sanctuary, as she had requested, in a private ceremony Wednesday evening.

Opened in 1995 by Buckley and Blais, the nonprofit refuge on 2,700 acres about 60 miles southwest of Nashville specializes in Asian elephants.

Burke's family has asked that in lieu of flowers that donations be made to The Elephant Sanctuary.