John Bradford, 62, died while moving an elephant into a chute that connects the barn stalls to the barn yard at the Dickerson Park Zoo, city spokeswoman Cora Scott said.
Scott said in a release that the elephant, a 41-year-old female named Patience who had been at the zoo since 1990, hesitated in the approximately 12-foot-long chute. When Bradford reached for her with a guide to coax her forward, she suddenly lunged forward. Bradford was knocked into the chute and crushed against the floor.
Other zookeepers quickly pulled Patience away from Bradford, but he was killed instantly, Scott said. No other zoo employees were injured.
Bradford worked at the zoo for 30 years and had been the zoo's elephant manager for 25 years.
"It's an extremely sad time for the co-workers at the zoo and at the city," Scott said.
Paul Price, a longtime friend and former co-worker of Bradford, told the Springfield News-Leader that elephants were Bradford's passion.
"He was always aware of dangers and everything and was instrumental in developing the elephant management program at the zoo at the national and international levels," he added.
The zoo has two female and two male elephants. Scott said in a news release that zookeepers had been keeping a close eye on the female elephants since the death earlier this month of the zoo's matriarch elephant, Connie. Zookeepers reported that Patience's behavior had been hesitant and submissive since then.
Zoo officials said that Patience won't be euthanized and that no disciplinary action will be taken.
The zoo opened as usual on Friday, although the elephants weren't on exhibit. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums were notified of Bradford's death.
"This is very sad day for the zoo family, as well as our community as a whole," said Mike Crocker, assistant parks director and zoo director.