SAN DIEGO — Jenny Chung is looking at the elephant that killed her sister, a well-known veterinarian in New Zealand who devoted years to the elephant’s care after she was rescued from a touring circus.
Chung has no anger toward Mila, the 7,600-pound African elephant with thoughtful eyes, stubby tusks and hair on her back that turns reddish from “dirt baths.”
“She never meant to hurt Helen, I’m convinced of that,” Chung said. “She’s lovely and she deserves to live like an elephant.”
Helen Schofield, 42, a veterinarian and operator of an 8-acre zoo south of Auckland, was killed by Mila on April 25, 2012. Horrified visitors watched helplessly.
Frightened after brushing against an electric security wire, Mila used her powerful trunk to grab and squeeze Schofield and lift her into the air. Schofield had entered Mila’s enclosure to give her some fruit, but tripped on the way out.
A coroner’s investigation later branded the death as the result of an accident, not an attack. A witness told reporters that Mila seemed to be trying to protect, not harm, Schofield.
After Schofield’s death, trustees at the Franklin Zoo decided to close the facility and disperse its animals. Mila was a problem given her size, notoriety and the rarity of elephants in the zoos of New Zealand and Australia.
With regional options unavailable, and euthanasia being discussed, a deal was struck to airlift Mila from Auckland to Los Angeles, then drive her to the San Diego Zoo. Amid a cloak of secrecy, the truck carrying Mila arrived Nov. 14.
Under standard orders from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Mila was immediately quarantined until tests show she is free of tuberculosis, a common elephant ailment.
Initial indications are that Mila has none of the foot problems that often plague elephants and did not suffer any ill effects from the 12-hour flight or the slow drive down Interstate 5.
Chung and nine other New Zealanders, all wearing “Team Mila” jackets, arrived with the pachyderm and are at the San Diego Zoo’s elephant center each day.
“Hello, Mila,” Chung said as the elephant lumbered into view behind the thick glass and iron bars of her quarantine enclosure. “We’re here for you.”
While taking in an elephant that killed its keeper is new for the San Diego Zoo, taking in elephants with medical problems or facing the loss of their home zoo is not. The zoo’s Prebys Elephant Care Center, opened in 2009, has served as a rescue location for elephants from Texas and Tucson.
Counting Mila, the 2.5-acre center has seven elephants: three African and four Asian. Two other elephants — Jewel and Tina — were rescued from an owner in Texas, nursed back to health and then transferred to the Los Angeles Zoo.
The goal for Mila, once the quarantine is lifted, is to introduce her to the other elephants in the herd and allow her to go on exhibit. The timing is uncertain, depending on Mila’s progress.
“It will be up to Mila,” said Scott Morford, the zoo’s senior elephant keeper.
Born in Africa nearly 40 years ago, Mila was captured at an early age.
Records indicate she was on display at the London Zoo and the Honolulu Zoo and then for 30 years was the star attraction of a traveling circus in New Zealand, under the name Jumbo.
When Mila needed a home in 2009, Schofield was eager. Although she had never worked with elephants, she became a self-taught elephant expert. In the early months after Mila’s arrival, Schofield slept just outside the enclosure, to give Mila a sense of security.
In America, the management technique known as “protected contact” is the standard, adopted after a series of deaths, including that of a keeper at the zoo’s Wild Animal Park in 1991.
Keepers always keep safety bars between themselves and their elephants. With food rewards, elephants are taught how to lift their feet through small openings in the bars for daily inspection.
In New Zealand and Australia, “protected contact” is not yet the norm, according to San Diego Zoo officials. Schofield occasionally would enter the enclosure to feed Mila.
On the day of her death, she had entered the closure but tripped on the way out. Mila, giving off an unusually loud trumpeting sound, picked her up and would not initially respond to the command “Down, Mila, down.”
“Helen made a mistake, we know that,” said Chung, 58, who worked in the administrative side of the zoo. “She had been working so hard for Mila. It was just a very sad series of events.”
Chung and other “Team Mila” members will be in San Diego for several more weeks. In coming months they may return to check on Mila’s progress.