Fact Check

Was a Zookeeper Killed When an Elephant Defecated on Him?

Something stinks about this story.

Published Jul 30, 1999

 (Weekly World News)
Image Via Weekly World News
A zookeeper in Paderborn, Germany, was killed when an elephant defecated on him.

Something stinks about this story, which made its way to Team Snopes in summer of 1998:

PADERBORN, GERMANY - Overzealous zookeeper Frederic Briefed fed his constipated elephant Stefan 22 doses of animal laxative and more than a bushel of berries, figs and prunes before the plugged-up pachyderm finally let fly — and suffocated the keeper under 200 pounds of poop!

Investigators say ill-fated Friedrich, 46, was attempting to give the ailing elephant an olive-oil enema when the relieved beast unloaded on him like a dump truck full of mud.

"The sheer force of the elephant's unexpected defecation knocked Mr. Riesfeldt to the ground, where he struck his head on a rock and lay unconscious as the elephant continued to evacuate his bowels on top of him," said flabbergasted Paderborn police detective Erik Dern.

"With no one there to help him, he lay under all that dung for at least an hour before a watchman came along, and during that time he suffocated.

"It seems to be just one of those freak accidents that happen sometimes — a billion-to-one shot, at least."

The heartbreaking tale of constipation and tragedy began April 23 when the conscientious zookeeper noticed that his prize, 8,000-pound African elephant didn't seem to be producing his usual poop aplenty.

"Friedrich had actually been concerned for several days because he knew that severe constipation can kill an elephant," assistant zookeeper Kurt Herrman recalled.

"He told me he was going to stay late that Thursday night to treat Stefan with laxatives and possibly give him an enema.

"I offered to help, but he sent me on home, saying he had everything under control."

But two hours later, horrified night watchman Walter Pleuger found Friedrich lying lifeless under a mound of muck, his body visible only from the knees down.

"I had never really thought about it before," Det. Dern said. "But obviously, giving an elephant an enema can be a very dangerous activity — and not something that should be attempted alone."

This entertaining "news item" appeared in the Weekly World News, a publication not known for adherence to strict journalistic standards. Fantastic stories invented cut of whole cloth regularly appear in its pages, and this pachyderm tale is but another of that ilk.

Photo or not, the story is a fake. There is no zoo in Paderborn, Germany, and a check of that town's phone book fails to reveal listings for either the victim Riesfeldt or detective Erik Dern. Moreover, no reputable news agency carried the story of the unfortunate Friedrich Riesfeldt's demise.

Even if we didn't know about the lack of a zoo in Paderborn, this story should have leapt off the page as something that had to be untrue. The key fact in this tale is Riesfeldt's foolhardy yet somewhat successful single-handed attempt to irrigate the elephant's posterior. No wild creature willingly submits to an enema. A lone zookeeper attempting to administer one to a pachyderm wouldn't get very far; the animal would easily brush him aside.

The photograph supplied by the Weekly World News is clearly a fake. The posture of the elephant makes one think of a circus animal with the stand it was posed on airbrushed out, but more telling is the lack of enema implements in the shot. If Riesfeldt had truly been overcome by a sudden dam burst of excreta, where are the tools he was using? Where's the tubing and the source of water? (And who took the picture?)

Another look at the photo confirms this shot was taken either during daylight hours or in a well-lit circus tent, certainly not in a field after sunset. According to the Weekly World News story, Riesfeldt's body was discovered by the night watchman two hours after Riesfeldt's final conversation with another co-worker in which he announced he was staying late to irrigate the elephant. I am reliably informed elephants do not cast shadows at night.

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