HOPE, Maine — Two of the newest residents of Hope are gray, arthritic, enormous and quite wrinkled, but are still a giant hit with the town’s children — and just about everybody else, it seems.
Opal and Rosie are two retired Asian circus elephants who arrived a few days ago to live out the rest of their years in a brand-new facility that aims to provide them with cutting-edge physical therapy, innovative nutritional care and much more.
“They were outside all morning. They had themselves a nice wallow,” Jim Laurita, a veterinarian and co-founder of Hope Elephants, said last week. “They conquered a dead apple tree yesterday. They were screaming and trumpeting — the elephant trumpet is a sound like no other in the world. We’re really confident that we’re making them very happy.”
Rosie, 43, and Opal, 41, leave a big footprint. The inquisitive, intelligent animals each weigh at least 7,200 pounds and chomp on 3 1/2 bales of hay each day, plus 50 gallons of water, Purina elephant chow and 10 pounds of assorted fruits and vegetables. Cantaloupes are a favorite, but mushrooms and asparagus are not, he said.
In the wild, the elephants — an endangered animal — can live up to 60 years. Laurita said that however long their elephants live, he wants to improve their quality of life, with therapies including acupuncture, homeopathic veterinary treatment and even a planned water treadmill. In addition to hay, they eat food that incorporates sea vegetables to help their arthritis.
“Nowhere else in the world is doing this,” he said.
When Laurita was a young man, he and his brother Tom worked with a big circus in the midwest. They had a juggling act, and a second job of working with the elephants. That’s where they met Rosie and Opal.
“I’ve known these girls for the last 30-something years,” he said of the elephants. “We always wanted to do something as they got older.”
That dream turned into Hope Elephants, a nonprofit organization that was incorporated about a year and a half ago. The Lauritas broke ground last September on a 3,000-square-foot elephant barn. Behind the barn is an acre of ground for the elephants that is surrounded by heavy-duty fences, one of which is electrified, to protect both the elephants and the people around them.
The facility was created thanks to more than $100,000 raised in donations, both large and small, from people in the midcoast and beyond. It’s proving to be a good home for Rosie and Opal, Jim Laurita said.
The elephant stall is lined with eight inches of sand, with radiant heat underneath, so that when they lie down at night to sleep they’re warm and comfortable, Laurita said. It’s quite a change from the concrete stalls where circus elephants usually live.
“That is about the worst thing in the world for an arthritic elephant,” he said.
The journey of the elephants to coastal Maine was long, with some twists and turns. They were not born in captivity but rather in the wild somewhere in Asia, and taken to join the circus when they were small.
Rosie was an orphan and was bottle-raised by people, according to Laurita.
They performed with the circus for years, but had to retire after suffering from some health problems, some of which came about after getting pushed around by a bigger elephant in the circus.
“Rosie doesn’t walk properly,” he said.
The veterinarian is still diagnosing Opal.
After leaving the circus, both elephants went to the Endangered Ark Foundation in Hugo, Okla., but the type of care they can receive in the Maine facility is much more specific to their needs, he said.
When Rosie met Jim Laurita again after many years, she remembered her former handler.
“Elephants, like people, do not forget kindness,” he said. “She meandered over, opened up her mouth, and wanted me to pet her tongue.”
In the future, the brothers and the volunteer crew working with them hope to continue to improve the educational aspects of the facility. They’ll be having school groups visit to learn firsthand about elephants, with the first students already having stopped by last week to say hello to Rosie and Opal. Visitors are welcome, but must sign up in advance for a scheduled tour and presentation.
The Lauritas take their commitment to education and conservation seriously.
“There’s a big problem with extinction,” Jim Laurita said, adding that elephants are still hunted for their tusks in many places.
And although some people and groups, including the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, have criticized the barn and elephant yard as being too small and in the wrong climate for the animals, he rejects that idea.
“This is a facility for the care of geriatric elephants in their declining years,” he said. “We want to make their lives more comfortable.”