A pair of Asian elephants housed at a rescue facility in Maine will be sent to a new home in the wake of the accidental death its founder.
Jim Laurita, who established Hope Elephants in 2011 in Hope, Maine, and welcomed two Asian elephants Rosie and Opal the next year, was accidentally stepped on by one of the animals on Tuesday. While tending to the animals, the 56-year-old veterinarian had somehow fallen in the corral and struck his head on the cement floor, according to the Knox County Sheriff’s Office. The medical examiner later concluded he was stepped on by an elephant.
Officials called it a “tragic accident.” The elephants, which were circus performers for decades, are not considered aggressive.
Laurita’s brother, Tom, and the facility’s co-founder, said in a statement that nobody will ever know for sure what happened. But he suspects the animals may have been trying to help his brother.
“Here is what I know. Jim fell and hit his head on the concrete walkway. We don’t know whether this occurred because his hip gave out (he needed a hip replacement), whether he had a cardiac event, or whether he fell for some other reason. He was incapacitated and could not get up. From what I know and believe, Rosie was trying to help him get up using her leg and injured trunk. It is instinctual for elephants to help a herd member who cannot get up by using their trunk and legs. Rosie weighs over 7,500 pounds so her attempts to help Jim, as he had helped her so faithfully, may have resulted in Jim’s death. The Maine state medical examiner’s office said, ‘The elephant was not aggressive in any way. It was clearly an accident.’ It was a tragedy too.
The facility also released a statement.
“Jim’s passion for all animals, but especially elephants was boundless. It was Jim’s ability share that passion with all around him that not only helped to make our organization a reality, but also enriched and enhanced the lives of all those who had a chance to know Jim. It was through education that Jim passed on his passion and the importance of wildlife conservation.”
Then, reality set in. The board of directors issued a statement on Sept. 10 effectively outlining the end of Laurita’s dream. The animals would be returned to a facility that previously housed them in Oklahoma. The organization also said it owed Laurita’s family about $300,000.
“Everyone who knew him appreciated that his commitment was total. To that end, over the past few years, Jim sold his veterinary practice to raise money to fund the operation, lent money to the organization, deferred taking much of his already modest salary, funded equipment purchases, and more. In total, Hope Elephants owed Jim more than $300,000 at his death. This obligation from us represents substantially the entire net worth of Jim’s family.”
Hope Elephants is also accepting donations to The Jim Laurita Fund, to help cover costs and support Laurita’s family.