...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.
"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.
During her time at the zoo, Winkie was managed free-contact-dominance, which is a standard form of elephant management. Winkie's response to being dominated was to lash out at new keepers being trained to dominate her. She hurt several would-be elephant keepers and visitors in her 30-year stay at the zoo, earning a reputation as a dangerous elephant.
Joanna shared the Sanctuary's philosophy that Winkie will not be punished for her actions but managed in a way that keeps another innocent caregiver out of harms' way.
Joanna made it perfectly clear in word and deed that no harm should come to any elephant no matter their action.
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