PETA Petitions OSHA to Bar Direct Contact with Elephants to Prevent Worker Injuries, Fatalities

The animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) filed a formal petition with OSHA asking the agency to prohibit all direct physical contact between employees and elephants – known as “free contact” – at circuses, exhibits and other businesses that use elephants and to instead require impassable barriers between workers and elephants.

According to PETA, this system of “protected contact” already is in use in most U.S. zoos. The Knoxville Zoo announced March 24 that it intends to switch to protected contact permanently as the result of the death of a handler in January.

“When held captive and denied everything that’s natural and important to them, elephants become ticking time bombs,” said PETA counsel and Director of Captive Animal Law Enforcement Delcianna Winders. “The many deaths that have occurred as a result of free contact could have been prevented under protected contact, and OSHA’s mandate is to step in when workers’ lives are being placed at risk.”

Over the last 20 years, human interactions with captive elephants in the United States have resulted in 15 human deaths and more than 135 reported injuries, PETA said. The most recent fatality involved elephant handler Stephanie James, who died Jan. 14 after she was crushed against metal bars by an elephant handled via free contact at the Knoxville Zoo.

No deaths and one injury, which occurred when the employee failed to follow protocol, have occurred at zoos that use protected contact, the organization added.

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