Family speaks out about death of Knoxville Zookeeper

11:56 AM, Jan 17, 2011   |    comments
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Video: Watch full press conference from Knoxville Zoo

  • Stephanie James
  • Photo courtesy of WTHR in Indianapolis, IN.
  • Photo courtesy of WTHR in Indianapolis, IN.
  • Photo courtesy of WTHR in Indianapolis, IN.
    
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  • Release from the Knoxville Zoo
  • Ron and Kris James are facing a reality no parent should have to.

    "It was a shock. It was a shock. You can't believe it," said Mr. James.

    The James's drove to Knoxville Saturday from their home in Indianapolis, IN to retrieve their daughter's body and take it home.  Stephanie James, 33, died Friday evening after an African Elephant named Edie  she worked with at the Knoxville Zoo pushed her into a wall in the animal's barn.

    "She was such a devoted daughter. She'd call us at least once per week and the conversations always ended up with 'I love you'," said Mr. James.

    Mr. James said Stephanie loved all animals, and was no stranger to working with wild animals.

    "She spent seven to eight years at Sea World and she got put in the hospital by a dolphin down there, but it was just, things happen," said Mr. James.

    Despite being injured in the past, Mr. James said, Stephanie understood the risks of working with wild animals.  She also knew the rewards of working with elephants.

    "She was trying to make their lives better because they're smart. She really loved them...it was an accident. She took the best care that she could. She was aware of the dangers," said Mr. James.

    The doting father also said his daughter loved to help people, "She took her one dog to hospitals with kids and she also took it to grade schools where the kids could read to it without judgment."

    Stephanie James's last act is also going to help people. Her father said she was an organ donor. Despite succumbing to internal injuries, he said she is able to donate her eyes, heart valves, and connective tissues to save others' lives.

    A fund has been set up at Clayton Bank and Trust for Stephanie James and her family to help with funeral expenses. Clayton Bank made the first donation in the amount of $2,500. Anyone who wishes to donate can visit any Clayton Bank branch.

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    An experienced elephant keeper at the Knoxville Zoo was fatally injured Friday by an elephant at the zoo.

    The keeper was working in the elephant barn before 5:00 pm with the elephant named Edie when the animal pushed her into the wall.  Stephanie James was transported to UT Medical Center where she died as a result of internal injuries, according to a news release from the zoo.

    A zoo spokesperson told 10News the keeper was not injured intentionally, and the elephant was not being aggressive.

    Jim Vlna, Knoxville Zoo Executive Director said in the release, "Everyone at Knoxville Zoo is shocked and saddened at the loss of Stephanie. Our prayers are with her parents, Ron and Kris James, and the rest of her family."

    James had worked at the Knoxville Zoo for two years. Prior to that she worked at Sea World in Orlando, Florida.

    Zoo officials are working with several organizations including the TWRA and USDA to investigate what happened. They also said they are independently reviewing their own procedures for handling elephants.

    According to Vlna, Edie, the elephant responsible for James' death will not be punished or disciplined. Instead, all three elephants will be managed in protective contact during the investigation. This means the elephants are not confined, but any contact with them is done through a protective barrier. Prior to the accident, trainers handled the elephants in open spaces.

    On Saturday, zoo officials kept all three of their elephants inside their barn. Officials said that was because of the cold weather, not due to the accident.

    James' family arrived in Knoxville from Indiana on Saturday. Her father said she loved animals, but knew the risk of her job. "It was a shock, I mean you can't believe it but when they had us on hold for such a long time at the hospital, my trepedation grew because I was afraid something was up," explained James' father Ron.

    Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett said Friday night that he and his wife, Allison, were saddened by the news of the keeper's death.

    "This is a terrible tragedy," Burchett said in a release. "Stephanie will be missed by those who knew her and by the children whose imaginations were sparked by her work. Allison and I will keep her family in our thoughts and prayers, and we ask all Knox County citizens to do the same."

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