A ZOOKEEPER has been killed by an elephant in Spain after the animal hit him with its trunk.
Joaquin Gutierrez Arnaiz, 44, smashed his head on the iron bars of the enclosure after the elephant tried to protect her calf.
He was rushed to hospital after two colleagues desperately tried to save him, but died around three hours after being struck, just after 11am yesterday.
Police have launched an investigation into the incident, which occurred at Cabarceno Natural Park, a zoo near Santander and traditionally one of the main tourist attractions of the region of Cantabria which the northern Spanish port city is the capital of.
It has been described as the “first fatal accident” of its kind in the park’s 30-year history.
Friends and colleagues are due to pay tribute to Joaquin in a midday ceremony at the park, an international centre of reference in the reproduction and care of African elephants.
His bosses confirmed in a statement: “A worker at the Cabarceno Natural Park has died after being hit by one of the elephants.
“The accident occurred at 8.30am on Tuesday outside the stables of the pachyderms, as daily cleaning and release of the animals began.
“Joaquin Gutierrez Arnaiz, 44, was in an intermediate security corridor the elephants use to enter and exit their stables in an orderly fashion when he was hit by the elephant’s trunk.
“The elephant is a female who was with her calf in one of the large yards. Joaquin hit his head against the enclosure railings as he fell.
“Two colleagues who were with him dialled 999 and Joaquin was transferred to hospital by ambulance. He died at 11.15am.
“Police and Civil Guard have been to the park and initiated an investigation to clarify the cause of the accident.
“Joaquin’s death has caused great commotion among his colleagues and Cantur, the publicly-owned company which manages the park.
“This is the first fatal accident that has occurred at Cabarceno Natural Park in 30 years.”
Regional tourism and industry councillor Francisco Javier Lopez Marcano, paying tribute to Joaquin who started working at Cabarceno in 2002 and was described as one of its most veteran elephant keepers, added: “We are deeply shocked. The loss of such a young and popular person has caused great pain.
“He was a great lover of elephants and his work.”
Cantabrian president Miguel Angel Revilla said: “Nothing like this had ever happened. Joaquin was an extraordinary person. Rest in peace.”
Well-wisher Mery Bravo added: “Rest in peace, What a tragedy.
“However experienced you are you can never lower your guard. Animals react out of fear or to protect their young. My condolences to Joaquin’s family.”
Alberto Puche Hernandez said: “Animals are unpredictable. I’m sure Joaquin enjoyed looking after them. This is a real tragedy. My sincerest condolences to his family.”
Cabarceno Natural Park is located in a former open-pit iron mine. Cantur, the tourism company which manages it, is owned by the regional government of Cantabria.
It is home to almost 120 animal species including wolves, tigers, lions and jaguars from five continents living in semi-captive conditions, including large enclosures where one or more species co-exist.
The natural scenery of the park includes gorges, lakes and rock formations.
The park collaborates in behavioural studies of the male African elephant via non-invasive methods to further understand the reason for high aggression shown by male elephants at certain times of the year.
is a member of IAZA (the Iberian Association of Zoos and Aquaria) and EAZA (the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria), which helps conserve, protect, and restore endangered species threatened by extinction.
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Last summer, a tiger “grabbed a female keeper by the neck” and killed her in front of shocked visitors, including a child, say eyewitnesses.
Zurich Zoo staff rushed to the 55-year-old’s aid and tried to resuscitate her but “sadly all help came too late,” police spokeswoman Judith Hoedl said.
The zoo said the woman’s death “is extremely tragic and Zurich Zoo is deeply affected.