Zoo keeper had 'special relationship' with elephant that attacked him

Don RedFox in an earlier interview with NBC24.

CLICK HERE for Thursday's reporting on this story and to join in on the viewer debate on why this attack happened and if it were preventable.

The Toledo Zoo is working to try to understand what happened to prompt an elephant to attack a zoo keeper Thursday afternoon.

Zoo officials say it is clear the animal knocked the keeper to the ground with his tusk in a state of agitation in what they are calling an attack but they do not know why.

"All we know at this point is that (the keeper: Don RedFox) went in, he had some carrots to reward Louie and Louie appears to have been startled when Don first walked in, Louie was facing the other way," said Toledo Zoo Deputy Director Ron Fricke.

RedFox's family told zoo officials that the 53-year-old seemed to be doing better Friday after suffering broken ribs and other injuries.

RedFox is the zoo's elephant manager and has worked at the zoo for over 30 years. The animal that attacked him was an elephant he knew well: 7-year-old Louie.

In fact, RedFox has worked with Louie since his birth at the zoo.

In a 2007 interview, RedFox told NBC24 that Louie was great to work with:

"Louie's really, really a good animal, he enjoys being around the keepers all the elephant keepers have a special relationship with him, he's very well-behaved, he listens to the commands we give him and responds unbelievably well," said RedFox in 2007.

Toledo Zoo officials say Louie has continued to show good behavior and that, before this incident, he has never shown signs of aggression.

"Our keeper staff are very puzzled by the whole thing because it was so out of character for Louie," said Fricke. "I mean he's been a great elephant... Don was here from the time he was born and had been working with him and have had a great working relationship like we have with all of our elephants."

The zoo is forming an inquiry team to investigate what exactly happened Thursday afternoon.

The team could decide that keepers should no longer handle Louie from in the cage but instead from behind protective barriers; a process that the zoo practices but does not use exclusively.

"Elephants are very social creatures and that becomes a very important part-the positive contact from the keepers, the rewards. Some of that you can do through protected but we believe very strongly in the way that we manage the elephant collection," said Fricke.

Louie was on display as normal Friday and the zoo says he was not and will not be punished in any way.