By Abigail Curtis
A week after Hope Elephants co-founder Jim Laurita’s sudden, tragic death in his elephant pen, the two Asian elephants he always called “his girls” are settling in at the Endangered Ark Foundation in Hugo, Oklahoma.
Rosie and Opal left Maine over the weekend and were transported by truck nearly 2,000 miles to their new home. They arrived at the ranch on Monday — the same place they had been living before the midcoast area veterinarian decided he wanted to bring the retired circus elephants to Hope. Arlinda Copeland, the director of the Oklahoma facility, said Wednesday that the elephants in the herd remembered the Hope Elephants.
“The instant the girls got in the yard, all the other elephants started trumpeting and talking,” she said. “They obviously recognize and communicate with each other. When Opal got next to [an elephant named\ Margaret, they interlocked trunks. It was really sweet.”
The future of the elephants has been a matter of concern for many people in Maine and beyond after Laurita’s death, which happened on the morning of Sept. 10 while he was working solo in the elephant pen. Hope Elephant directors said that Rosie and Opal were obligated to return to the “elephant retirement ranch” from which they came, because the Endangered Ark Foundation still owns Rosie and Opal. “The exact nature of our ongoing relationship with the girls, and where they will ultimately live, will be determined by a thoughtful assessment of the who, how, what and where questions regarding the future of Hope Elephants, which we, as a community, need to consider in the coming months,” board members wrote Sept. 15 in a statement posted on the Facebook page of the nonprofit Maine organization.
Officials from the Knox County Sheriff ’s Office and the Maine medical examiner’s office said that Laurita had apparently fallen and hit his head on the concrete walkway, then was crushed to death by one of the elephants. His death was ruled accidental.
Tom Laurita, the cofounder of Hope Elephants and Jim Laurita’s brother, wrote last week that he knew Rosie had gone over to try to help Jim get up off the ground. It was obvious to anyone who visited the facility that Jim loved the elephants and the elephants loved Jim, he said, citing as an example the way that Rosie, who was scared of thunder, would run to Jim and hug him with her trunk when the sky rumbled.
“It is instinctual for elephants to help a herd member who cannot get up by using their trunk and legs,” he wrote in a statement posted on the Hope Elephants Facebook page. “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. … As we all work through our sadness, the Hope Elephants family and community is determined to do what Jim would certainly have wanted us to do — to take care of those without a voice and help stop the extinction of elephants. I believe that Jim gave his life for this cause.”
Still, some people have publicly questioned the elephants’ move back to Oklahoma. The Endangered Ark Foundation serves as a nonprofit organization that is connected to the Carson & Barnes Circus, where Laurita worked as a young man and met Rosie and Opal. The foundation was created in 1993 by the owner of the circus, and its website says it seeks to preserve endangered Asian elephants. Copeland said that although in the past, circus elephants have been bred at the foundation, elephants such as Rosie and Opal are retired and will not be bred.
“We hope they have a rich and satisfying life,” she said. “We’ll do our best to ensure that. One of the things we desire to do is to continue the treatments that Jim had initiated and that they were receptive to.”
A recently-created Facebook group, called Voice for Rosie and Opal, is advocating that the two retired circus elephants be transferred to a place such as The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, which is not affiliated with a circus.
“Dr. Laurita worked tirelessly to remove them from this facility they are now being shipped to,” one woman wrote on that page.
Mary Beth Ikard of The Elephant Sanctuary said that her organization is a “forever home” for retired, captive elephants in North America.
“The Elephant Sanctuary would be pleased to discuss the option of natural-habitat sanctuary with the Endangered
Ark Foundation, and/or the Hope Elephants board of directors, so that all concerned parties might collaborate on plans for Rosie and Opal’s future,” she wrote earlier this week in an email to the BDN.
But Copeland said that Laurita had a good relationship with her Oklahoma facility, and she and others came to Maine in June to learn about geriatric elephant care from him.
“Our relationship with Hope Elephants is strong,” she said. “We would hope it would even grow stronger because of the tragic situation.”