A trainer was found trampled in a circus elephant trailer Monday afternoon, and the animals he "babied" are suspect in his death.
One theory calls the death by apparent blunt-force trauma an accident, but according to a Shrine Circus manager, investigations are underway.
Three handlers were loading the elephant as crews packed up from this weekend's Shrine Circus, officials said. Two of the workers left the semi trailer and Pierre Spenle, 40, of Texas, stayed behind to lock the trailer door.
A coliseum employee later saw Spenle lying inside a semi trailer with the elephants and alerted other handlers, said Victor Hopkins, spokesman for the Allen County Sheriff's Department. He was taken to a hospital and died a few hours later.
Spenle had been the elephants' primary trainer for several years, said Larry Solheim, circus general manager. "He babied these animals," Solheim said.
According to the Fort Wayne News Sentinel, this was the second time in a decade a worker with the Tarzan Zerbini Circus, which is based in Webb City, Mo., was involved in an accident with an elephant while loading animals and equipment after — a performance there.
The News Sentinel detailed that the accident — occurred about 2:20 p.m. as circus employees loaded elephants in preparation for departure. The sheriff's department investigated the incident because Allen County government owns the Memorial Coliseum where the circus performances were held.
Solheim said investigators were seeking advice from veterinarians and animal behavior experts, but that they did not believe it was an act of aggression.
"They are so mammoth, these animals, that even when they play, if you don't know how to play with them, you could get hurt," he said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates circuses through the Animal Welfare Act, is looking into the incident, USDA spokesman Darby Holladay said.
Elephants are the largest of all land animals, and depending on the sex and species they could reach 13 feet in height and weigh up to 6.5 tons, according to the Humane Society of the United States' Web site.
Captive elephants from 1990 to 2003 killed 65 people and injured 130, according to Circuses.com which is run by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.