A circus worker is fighting for his life in a Cork hospital after being crushed by Baby, the runaway elephant.
Spanish national Justino Munez suffered severe internal injuries when the 2.5-ton animal accidentally crushed him as he was cleaning the elephant pen at Courtney Brothers Circus in Blackpool, Cork, on Saturday night.
The circus’s owners have suggested that the elephant’s food may have been tampered with, and are conducting their own investigations.
Baby made world headlines when she ran away from the circus last Tuesday. But she was charged in the holding pen by another elephant around 5pm on Saturday, and fell on Mr Munez.
He was rushed to Cork University Hospital with several broken ribs and a suspected punctured lung. His condition deteriorated yesterday and he remained in a critical condition last night. The next 48 hours will be crucial for his survival.
“This was an unfortunate incident. The man was just standing in the wrong place at the wrong time,” circus boss Wayne Courtney said.
Mr Courtney said Baby was pushed by another elephant, causing her to stumble into Mr Munez.
But eyewitness Sabrina Walsh, from Cork, said she saw an elephant charge at Baby and hit her on her side, causing her to topple over. She said the worker was pinned beneath the animal for several seconds.
“I could see his legs sticking out from under the elephant’s body,” she said. “The elephant had to rock to get back up and I heard the man scream in agony. Then his legs and arms started to twitch.
“It took a few minutes for people to get over to him and a while for the ambulance to get there. I don’t think the circus people realised how seriously injured he was.”
The circus has launched an internal investigation amid concerns the elephants, or their food, may have been tampered with.
“We have two theories,” Mr Courtney said. “Elephants are very intelligent, sensitive animals and we have suspicions that the others may be jealous of the attention Baby has been getting since last week’s incident.
“But we also believe that the elephants may have been interfered with, or fed something.
“Too many things have happened since we arrived in Cork. There are too many ifs and buts for this all to be a coincidence.”
Circus handler Joy Gartner called in a vet to take blood samples from the elephants yesterday. The samples will be sent to either Britain or France for testing and it could be a week before the results are known.
“We have to get to the bottom of this to put our minds at rest,” Mr Courtney said.
But Animal Rights Action Network (Aran), which protested outside the circus before Saturday’s accident, said the Government must act.
“We urge the Government to introduce emergency legislation without delay in the upcoming Animal Health and Welfare Bill to finally ban animal-act circuses in Ireland,” Aran spokesman John Carmody said.
“We’ve been warning almost weekly that the use of wild animals and elephants in travelling circuses poses not only serious animal welfare problems, but also a significant public safety risk.
“We’ve now had two serious incidents occur within one week. Will it take the death of a member of the public or a circus employee before this problem is taken seriously?”
The circus left Cork for Limerick last night.
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