“Jim is truly irreplaceable, leaving a monumental hole in our community and beyond,” the directors wrote on the Facebook page of Hope Elephants. “(He) was unequivocal in expressing his belief that our first responsibility was to ensure the continued well-being of Rosie and Opal. To that end, at least for the present, we will be returning the girls to the well-established, elephant care facility from which they came to us. They go back having greatly benefited from the host of therapies that Jim oversaw and we will work to see that those continue, so that Jim’s innovative veterinary techniques will benefit not only Rosie and Opal but, hopefully, other elephants as well.”

Additionally, the directors said that they will work to “ensure that Hope Elephants continues to exist and thrive,” and that they have created a fund to help provide for the 56-year-old Laurita’s widow, Carrie, and sons Henry and Louis.

Over the past few years, the board members wrote, Laurita had sold his veterinary practice to fund the operation, lent Hope Elephants money and deferred taking much of his salary. Altogether, Hope Elephants owed Laurita more than $300,000, a sum which substantially represents the Laurita family net worth, the directors wrote.

“The sacrifices that he made to make Hope Elephants possible and sustainable were incredible,” they wrote. “Everyone who knew him appreciated that his commitment was total.”

Efforts by the BDN to contact Hope Elephants on Wednesday were not successful.

News that the geriatric and arthritic Asian elephants will leave Maine after being here for two years and be returned to the Carson & Barnes retirement facility in Hugo, Oklahoma, initially was met with dismay by the Maine group’s Facebook fans.


“How terrible that these poor creatures are being returned to where they came from, just like a shelter dog,” one woman wrote, pleading for the board of directors to find a different solution. “I’m sure this is what Dr. Laurita would want, especially since it was his life mission to ensure they were saved. It is a crime to throw them back now.”

Hope Town Administrator Jon Duke said Wednesday that the sadness of Laurita’s sudden death was palpable in Hope, which has a population of just 1,500 or so.

“It’s not any easier to take today than yesterday,” he said Wednesday. “It’s a small, tight-knit community. Everyone knows everyone. Obviously, 24 hours afterward, we’re still in shock.”

He said that Laurita, a beloved veterinarian, had accomplished a remarkable thing when he brought the elephants to Hope and taught people in Maine about wildlife conservation.

“It’s hard to separate Hope Elephants from Jim Laurita. So much of this was his heart and his passion,” Duke said. “They need to do what’s best for the organization and the family. They’ve been a great part of the town.”

Also on Wednesday, police released a few more details about the circumstances of Laurita’s death. It was the veterinarian’s practice to wake up early to feed the two 8,000-pound elephants, who slept in a special corral in the barn next to his house, according to Chief Deputy Tim Carroll of the Knox County Sheriff’s Office. Laurita then would go to his house for a cup of coffee, returning a bit later to tend to them again. It was during his second visit of the day, when he was working alone inside the elephant corral, that the veterinarian appears to have fallen and hit his head on the edge of the concrete walkway that bordered part of the elephant enclosure, Carroll said.


When paramedics arrived at the scene Tuesday morning, the elephants were still in the corral, where they did not seem aggressive or excited, he said.

“As far as the scene goes, there’s nothing disturbed traumatically in the area. Nothing that leads us to believe anything other than that he was on the ground and one of the elephants accidentally stepped on him,” Carroll said Wednesday. “From what I’ve been told, elephants are very caring animals. If they sensed something was wrong, they might have gone to help.”

According to Duke, because Laurita’s vision of bringing elephants to live in Hope was so “bizarre to begin with,” when the fledgling nonprofit agency was trying to get permission from the town to do so, Laurita met with a lot of pushback. More criticism came from national groups, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, than locally, the administrator said.

“For a lot of people, Jim was their vet, and people have a special relationship with their vet,” he said. “[They’d say], ‘I trust him to take care of my dog — why wouldn’t I trust him to take care of an elephant?’”

In order to secure permission from the town and from state and federal agencies to build the facility, Laurita created emergency contingency plans, Duke said. Those included what to do in case one of the elephants escaped or if Laurita was injured. On Tuesday, Hope Elephant officials contacted a person listed as the emergency elephant caretaker to come to Maine for Rosie and Opal.

“From everything I know, everything is following procedure,” Duke said. “But regardless of the best-laid plans, it’s still a shock.”


The day after the tragedy, PETA issued a statement calling for Rosie and Opal to be sent to a “true, accredited sanctuary in a more appropriate, warmer climate.”

“When people ignore experts’ recommendation to keep a constant, secure barrier between elephants and humans (known as ‘protected contact’), the consequences can be disastrous,” Delcianna Winders, deputy general counsel for the organization, said. “Dr. James Laurita’s death must serve as a wake-up call that ‘free contact’ easily becomes deadly contact.”

One official from a California animal welfare group said after Laurita’s death that he would like to know more about the safety protocols in place at the Hope Elephants facility.

“It’s always a tragedy when somebody is injured or killed in an elephant-associated death,” Ed Stewart, co-founder and president of PAWS, the Performing Animals Welfare Society, said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “It just affirms the fact that elephants really do not belong in captivity at all … It’s really unfortunate that [Laurita’s] life had to end this way. I never met him, but I understand he was always trying to help elephants. We respect people who were trying to do that.”

Stewart said that when Laurita was starting Hope Elephants, safety questions about the proposed facility in Maine raised red flags for PAWS. The elephants that live at the PAWS sanctuary do not come into direct contact with people, but instead are limited to what Stewart termed “protected contact.” That means that there is always a steel barrier wall between elephants and people.

“Humans don’t go inside with the elephant,” he said of his facility. “Elephants are just dangerous. They’re big and intelligent, and they kill a lot of people … If you’re in protected contact, you have to make a big mistake to get injured by an elephant.”


Duke said that no one in Hope questioned Laurita’s love and concern for animals, especially the two retired circus elephants. Since Hope Elephants opened its doors, schoolchildren had the chance to watch Rosie and Opal in wonder. Last year, 17,000 people came to Hope to see the elephants — 10 times the town’s population.

“Rosie and Opal are part of everyone’s family in midcoast Maine,” Duke said. “Hope Elephants has been a huge part of our community since it started … I think a lot of people didn’t know there was a town of Hope until there was Hope Elephants.”

Knox County Sheriff’s Office deputies said they found James Laurita, 56, unresponsive Tuesday in the barn at the foundation in Hope, about 90 miles northeast of Portland.

Laurita appeared to have fallen before one of the foundation’s two elephants apparently stepped on him, police said, citing a medical examiner’s report.

Tending to the animals was part of Laurita’s daily routine at the facility he founded with his brother Tom in 2011. Hope Foundation’s two Asian elephants, Rosie and Opal, arrived in 2012.

“The elephant was not aggressive in any way. It was clearly an accident,” said Mark Belserene, administrator for the state medical examiner’s office, who added that the official cause of death is “asphyxiation and multiple fractures caused by compression of the chest.”


Laurita sold his veterinarian practice in nearby Camden in 2011 to establish Hope Elephants, where he worked as a caregiver and educator. He lived with his family in the area.

Laurita had worked with Opal and Rosie decades ago when he was an elephant handler for the traveling Carson & Barnes Circus.

County Chief Deputy Tim Carroll described Laurita as “greatly beloved in the community for all the work he does.” Hope Elephants released a statement saying the organization was “deeply saddened” by the loss of its founder.

“Jim’s passion for all animals, but especially elephants, was boundless,” the statement said.

Laurita “passed on his passion and the importance of wildlife conservation” through his educational outreach efforts, it said.

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