TOP SECRET ANIMAL ATTACK FILES
from Electronic Telegraph
keeper at Aspinall zoo
February 7, 2000
An experienced zoo keeper was killed by an elephant yesterday at an animal park owned by the millionaire John Aspinall. It is the fifth time in 20 years that animals belonging to Mr Aspinall have killed staff at one of his wildlife parks, where keepers are encouraged to "bond" with the animals and to mingle at close quarters with even the most dangerous creatures.
Darren Cockrill, 27, was found with multiple injuries in the stall of a 14-year-old female Indian elephant at Lympne Wild Animal Park, near Hythe, Kent. Although there were no witnesses to the incident, it is understood that the animal had fallen on top of him. Colleagues tried to revive Mr Cockrill with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation but he was declared dead on arrival at hospital.
A spokesman at Port Lympne said the elephant, called La Petite, had arrived at the zoo in October from an Austrian safari park. He said: "It seems Mr Cockrill may have trusted La Petite to be as reliable and friendly as the other cows which had been in his care and known to him for seven years." Mr Cockrill lived in staff accommodation at the zoo.
The park was immediately closed after the death was discovered at noon. Police and local health and safety officers are investigating whether the elephant killed Mr Cockrill by accident or intentionally. The park has a policy of not putting down animals that kill humans. However, the council could take action if the creature is shown to be dangerous.
Ray Lewis, a spokesman for Shepway district council, said: "The details of the death are unclear. We have got a team of three looking at the incident together with the police."
Mr Aspinall first gained notoriety for winning a fortune from Mayfair casinos and later became equally famous for his pioneering, "hands on" approach to zoo keeping. He was in South Africa last night but paid tribute to Mr Cockrill, who had more than eight years' experience, saying that he "was a top quality keeper, one of the best". He said: "The Port Lympne elephant section is the best in the world of which I am very proud. This is a severe blow to us all. Darren commanded the respect of all the staff. My sympathy goes to his mother, father and girlfriend." Port Lympne is one of the biggest tourist attractions in the South-East and houses its animals, which include lions, gorillas and rhinoceroses, in large fenced enclosures in an attempt to mimic a natural environment.
Both Mr Aspinall's wildlife parks have experienced a number of accidents in recent years. Three years ago he went to the High Court to stop Canterbury city council preventing staff entering enclosures in which tigers roamed freely at Howletts zoo, his other wildlife park, after a keeper was killed. The keeper was mauled to death in 1994 by a Siberian tiger. Visitors saw the animal pick up Trevor Smith, 32, by the neck and head and carry him in its mouth to a shed in the compound.
In 1993, Louise Aspinall, 30, Mr Aspinall's daughter-in-law, needed 15 stitches after being bitten by a tiger cub at the same park. Ten years ago, two-year-old Matthew McDaid had his arm ripped off by a chimpanzee at Port Lympne. He was awarded £132,000 damages at the High Court. Four years later, the same animal bit off the finger and thumb of Angelique Todd, 25, a student working at the park. In 1984, Mark Aitken, 22, a keeper at Port Lympne, was killed when an Indian elephant crushed him against railings. In 1980, keepers Brian Stocks and Bob Wilson were both mauled to death by a tigress named Zeya in separate incidents at Howletts. Zeya was later shot by Mr Aspinall.