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Expert: Man lucky to survive after trespassing in San Diego Zoo elephant habitat

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Posted at 4:14 PM, Mar 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-23 19:22:43-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — One of the world's foremost elephant specialists told ABC 10News that the father jumped into and escaped an elephant enclosure with his daughter at the San Diego Zoo this month is lucky to be alive.

Dr. Caitlyn O'Connell, a faculty member at Harvard Medical School studying elephants in the wild for 30 years, is an award-winning author and producer of the documentary "Elephant King." She watched the video of the incident play out in horror.

"I made me so upset. I mean, this guy and his daughter are so lucky to be alive," O'Connell told ABC 10News anchor Vanessa Van Hyfte. "She's running at him. She throws her head forward, a head thrust, very aggressive. And also has the bottom of her trunk in a fist, which is .. an additional level of escalation of how upset she is. And then, she emits this very escalated trumpeting."

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Police: Man in custody after trespassing in elephant exhibit

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Jose Navarrete, 25, was arrested last Friday after he slipped through two barriers with his two-year-old daughter to get a photo closer to the elephant. Video shows the father in the enclosure holding his daughter before the elephant charges at him with his backed turned.

He quickly realizes how close the elephant is and runs out of the enclosure, dropping his daughter on the way out as the elephant throws its head back and forth. Navarrete faces child endangerment charges, according to San Diego Police. Both Navarrete and his daughter, and the elephant were not injured.

O'Connell said female elephants like the one seen in the video have strong protective instincts. They rely on sound and smell over sight. This elephant specifically didn't have a lot of distance between her and the intruders.

"Elephants don't like to have something unusual in their environment. She could easily have followed through and trampled both of them," said O'Connell. "It's very unfair for animals to have to be subject, they need to know that they have that safe place that you can't get across."

O'Connell pointed out that the other danger to the elephant and the man was the electric fence surrounding the enclosure.

"He subjects his daughter to an electric fence. Some of those fences are very, very powerful," she added, saying that the elephant's main instinct is to defend, not to hurt.

The San Diego Zoo has turned down ABC 10News' requests for interviews, citing the investigation into the incident. SDPD is handling the investigation.

Navarrete is scheduled to be arraigned on March 30, according to police.