Zoo personnel claim the guests discarded several obstructions and “purposely and illegally trespassed” into an exhibit home to the zoo’s Asian and African elephants, FOX 5 San Diego reports.
At least one of the elephants noticed the pair and charged at them, the San Diego Police Department says.
The security breach was discovered by officials at about 4:20 p.m. “San Diego Zoo security promptly responded to the incident, but the guests had already exited the habitat,” zoo authorities said in a statement.
Police claim the man, 25, “wanted to take a photo with the African bull elephant” and jumped at least two barricades to get into the animal’s enclosure. The elephant spotted the trespassers, “seemed a little upset,” and began moving in their direction, a sergeant reported.
The man, his daughter and the elephants all managed to get out of the situation unharmed, police and zoo officials said. Authorities at the zoo claim the man’s appearance in the enclosure agitated the elephant.
In a video taken by bystanders, the man appears to drop his young daughter on the ground, face-first, while the child is very close to the elephant’s feet which could have easily trampled her. The man grabs the little girl just in time and makes a panicked dash to safety, as the flustered elephant can be heard roaring.
“It’s an extremely dangerous situation, and no one in their right mind should ever think about doing this,” said Catherine Doyle, the director of science, research, and advocacy with PAWS, the Performing Animal Welfare Society.
“The elephant you saw I believe is Chaba, who was actually taken from the wild when she was a baby, taken away from her wild family. She was responding the way really an elephant would to an intruder. It looked to me like it was a mock charge, which is really intended to scare off an intruder. However, if Chaba thought her message wasn’t getting through, it could’ve turned into a more serious attack,” Doyle said.
Witnesses told FOX 5 they were shocked at what they had seen.
“You hear this woman yelling, ‘Jose, stop. Jose, stop,’” witness Lori Ortale described. “And he jumps the fence and then he goes through the elephant enclosure, and he’s got his little girl with him who, I don’t know, had to be under two.”
“These guys right away were saying, ‘That elephant is going to charge,’ and it did,” Ortale said.
San Diego County Jail records verified the suspect’s identity as Jose Manuel Navarrete.
“We told him to get out and he turned around and he saw it, thankfully, just in time,” another witness, Jake Ortale, recounted. “He runs, throws his baby through the gate and it’s seconds from hitting him. He jumps through the gate, falls on the ground and then it roared. … The baby starts crying and people were just mad at this guy.”
Police say that Navarrete’s daughter was returned to her mother’s care after his arrest. Police are looking into whether drugs or alcohol were involved in the incident.
Navarrete is facing charges of child endangerment and further charges may be added for entering the zoo enclosure. He is currently being held on $100,000 bail and is scheduled for an arraignment on March 30.