The company running the late John Aspinall's wildlife parks was ordered to pay £43,500 in fines and costs yesterday over the death of a worker crushed by an elephant.
Darren Cockrill suffered terrible head injuries when a 14-year-old Indian cow elephant attacked him at Port Lympne Zoo near Hythe, Kent, in February last year. Another keeper found the 27-year-old near the elephant, which had blood smeared on its trunk.
Yesterday, Folkestone magistrates' court was told that the experienced keeper may have been dragged by the violent animal, called La Petite, which had previously crushed a worker's legs in Austria.
Howletts and Port Lympne Estates Ltd, whose chairman is Aspinall's son Damien, pleaded guilty to three counts of breaching health and safety rules in a prosecution brought by Shepway District Council.
Philip Coppel, for the prosecution, told the court that Mr Cockrill had been left alone in the elephant house at about 11.30am on 7 February. "He was last seen in the elephant's store reading a book and without an elephant hook," he said. "At 11.55 another keeper went to the cow house and found Mr Cockrill lying on the stone floor dead. There was blood on the elephant's trunk and it is assumed the cause of death was an attack by the elephant." The court was told the number of elephants at the park had been doubled in October 1999 from eight to 16, and that La Petite was among the new arrivals.
Mr Coppel said the company had clearly breached its health and safety responsibilities and failed in its obligations to protect its staff. He said: "Elephants are by their nature a dangerous animal, this much is recognised in the Wild Animals Act. Clearly the mere keeping of such animals involves somebody working with them and, equally clearly, it will involve risk to the person. The underlying philosophy of the Health and Safety at Work Act is to minimise risks whether they be a wild animal park or not."
But Robert Fookes, for the defence, said that if the procedures had been put in place it would not have made any difference, because Mr Cockrill knew he should not have been in the store by himself.
He said: "No one knows why he went into the store, but the fact is when you look at the procedures in place at the time, it was very clear that he should have known that he shouldn't have been in the store on his own."
He added that the zoo did have health and safety guidelines, but admitted that they were not up to standard. The company had originally denied six breaches of the Health and Safety breaches. Three were dropped yesterday by the prosecution.
The firm pleaded guilty to failing to produce a fully documented system of work in relation to keeping elephants, failing to review the risks that elephant keepers were exposed to after a change in the number of elephants kept at the zoo, and failing to prepare a written outline of health and safety policy at the zoo.
Norma Reid, chairwoman of the bench, fined the company a total of £28,500 and ordered it to pay costs of £15,000.
She said: "We found that your policies, although in place, were not implemented with the rigour that the Health and Safety Act requires."
John Aspinall, who pioneered breeding programmes at his wild animal parks, died in June last year, aged 74, after being diagnosed three years earlier with cancer of the jaw.
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