A Spanish zookeeper died after an elephant, who was protecting her calf, hit him with her trunk yesterday morning. The force of the blow caused the zookeeper's head to get smashed against the iron bars of the pen. Colleagues rushed the victim to the hospital but he succumbed to his injuries three hours after the incident.

The zookeeper, 44-year-old Joaquin Gutierrez Arnaiz, has worked in the facility since 2002. Francisco Javier Lopez Marcano, a regional tourism and industry councilor, told The Sun that Gutierrez is one of the facility's veteran elephant keepers. He expressed shock at the incident, adding that the young and popular keeper's sudden demise caused great pain to his family and colleagues. "He was a great lover of elephants and his work," Lopez said.

The police are in the process of investigating the incident, which happened at the Cabarceno Natural Park, a short distance away from Santander. The zoo is among the major tourist attractions of the Cantabria region. Reports describe the case as the "first fatal accident" of its kind in the entire 30-year history of the park.

In a statement, the park's officials confirmed that 44-year-old Gutierrez died as a result of his injuries after one of the zoo's elephants hit him with her trunk. "The accident occurred at 8.30am on Tuesday outside the stables of the pachyderms, when daily cleaning and release of the animals began," park officials stated. Gutierrez' colleagues said the zookeeper was in the intermediate security corridor that elephants use when entering and exiting their stables when the trunk of the elephant hit him, causing him to hit his head hard against the railings of the enclosure.

Park officials revealed that the elephant is a female and is with her calf in one of the zoo's big yards. Two colleagues who were with Gutierrez immediately dialed 999 and helped transfer the victim to the hospital by ambulance. The Scottish Sun confirmed that he died at 11.15am. Police and the Civil Guard have been to the park and initiated an investigation to clarify the cause of the accident.," park officials said in a statement.

Cabarceno Natural Park in Spain Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Expressions of sympathy continue to pour in for the victim. "Nothing like this had ever happened. Gutierrez was an extraordinary person. Rest in peace," said Cantabrian president Miguel Angel Revilla. A colleague, Mery Bravo, also expressed disbelief at the tragic accident. "However experienced you are you can never lower your guard. Animals react out of fear or to protect their young. My condolences to Joaquin's family," Bravo said.

Another colleague, Alberto Puche Hernandez, said that Gutierrez enjoyed looking after the animals, though they could become unpredictable sometimes. "My sincerest condolences to his family," Puche said. The park's management scheduled a midday ceremony for the zookeeper where friends and colleagues will pay tribute to Gutierrez.