San Diego Zoo

Dad Arrested After Bringing Toddler Into Elephant Habitat at California Zoo

A witness said the man tripped and dropped his child as the elephant charged toward him, creating a tense standoff between man and beast

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A father is facing a child endangerment charge for allegedly bringing his 2-year-old into an elephant habitat at the San Diego Zoo on Friday, according to San Diego police.

Police say an elephant became upset after seeing the man and child in its habitat.

"This afternoon, March 19, 2021, two guests, despite multiple barriers, purposely and illegally trespassed into a habitat, which is home to our Asian and African elephants. San Diego Zoo security promptly responded to the incident, but the guests had already exited the habitat.

SkyRanger 7 video of the San Diego Zoo's Elephant Odyssey

Both the elephants and the guests are unharmed. San Diego Police Department is on site and we will follow their guidance," the zoo said in a statement.

When reports of the incident first surfaced, SDPD Sgt. Ariel Savage said the elephant appeared as if it wanted to charge at the father and toddler. But a witness described a scarier situation.

Matthew Passiglia told NBC 7 it only took about 30 seconds for the elephant to notice the man.

"A lot of people froze and didn’t know really how to take it in, then immediately everyone was pleading with him and then it became frantic and hysterical," Passiglia said.

What happened next stunned everyone.

"It was a big roar. [The elephant] stuck its head up in the air and its tusks and he started trotting toward them," Passiglia said.

Other witnesses rushed to help the man, according to Passiglia, but as he was running away he tripped and dropped his toddler. Passiglia said the elephant came within 5 feet.

"I didn’t think it was going to end well. There was a moment when the elephant had the option and luckily the elephant took a second guess and there was confusion right there on the floor with them," Passiglia said.

The man managed to hand his child off and made it to safety just before the elephant reached the fence.

"The tusks actually protruded out the other end," Passiglia said.

SDPD said officers with its Zoo Detail Unit arrested the man after the incident. He faces a charge related to child endangerment, as well as a city municipal code violation charge for trespassing on an animal enclosure, Sgt. Ariel said.

SDPD is investigating the incident.

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