By Abigail Curtis
HOPE, Maine — The Hope Elephants board of directors asked their supporters for time to mourn and regroup on Thursday, as they gave a more detailed explanation of why retired circus elephants Rosie and Opal will leave Maine following their handler Jim Laurita’s death in their pen earlier this week.
“Our plan from the outset was that, as we became financially and organizationally stable, we would invite other qualified handlers and veterinarians to come to Hope and help Jim,” they wrote on the nonprofit organization’s Facebook page. “Jim always told us that if anything happened to him before we could do that, the elephants needed to go back to their herd in Oklahoma. We just never believed this would come to pass.”
The message came in the wake of hundreds of comments left on the Hope Elephants Facebook page, many of which questioned the decision to return the arthritic, geriatric elephants to Oklahoma. In 2012, Laurita and others engaged in fundraising efforts to bring Rosie and Opal to Maine, where he said they would receive better care for their special needs.
According to the message from the board of directors, Rosie and Opal are still owned by the Endangered Ark Foundation of Hugo, Oklahoma. The Asian elephants were leased by Hope Elephants, and according to the lease, if they need to leave Hope, they must be returned to their owners.
The Endangered Ark Foundation is a nonprofit organization founded in 1993 by Isla and D.R. Miller, the founder of the Carson & Barnes Circus. This is the circus where Laurita, 56 at the time of his death, worked with his brother as a young man and learned he loved elephants. According to its website, the Endangered Ark Foundation seeks to preserve the “extremely endangered” Asian elephants. According to a 2005 article in the Chicago Tribune, elephants at the Endangered Ark Foundation have at times been bred, with the baby elephants sometimes joining the circus.
“The Endangered Ark Foundation is not a circus,” the Hope Elephant directors noted. “Rosie and Opal are not going back to the circus. They are and will remain retired. They will be in a very good facility with the herd of ‘sisters’ they had known for decades.”
The directors said that they have been overwhelmed at the love and sympathy that has come from all around the world after Laurita’s death on Tuesday morning. According to police and the Maine medical examiner’s office, Laurita was crushed to death by one of the elephants after he had apparently fallen and hit his head on concrete while he was working alone inside the pen.
The death was ruled accidental, and Chief Deputy Tim Carroll of the Knox County Sheriff’s Office said it is possible one of the elephants had gone to help Laurita and accidentally stepped on him.
According to the statement from Hope Elephants, Laurita’s death left the small nonprofit agency without a full-time qualified handler and veterinarian to take care of the two elephants.
“Our permits to keep the elephants are issued to Jim as the responsible person; so without him we cannot keep the girls in Hope for now,” the directors wrote.
In response to the many queries wondering whether Rosie and Opal will come back to Hope, they said that it was Laurita’s lifelong dream to create Hope Elephants, and thousands of people volunteered and contributed time and money to make the dream become a reality.
“Those of us who are left cannot let this dream die,” the directors wrote. “The people who are responsible to keep Jim’s legacy alive are determined to do that. Please give us some time to mourn and to regroup. Rosie and Opal are mourning, too, and we need to do what is best for them, for Jim’s family, and to fulfill our legal obligations. That is what we are thinking about night and day. We are looking for ways to continue our work, and to bring Rosie and Opal back if we can do that.”
Also on Thursday, a funeral announcement for Laurita stated that his memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 13, in the Knox County Ballroom at the Samoset Resort in Rockport, and memorial gifts may be made to Hope Elephants, P.O. Box 2025, Hope, ME 04847.
On Wednesday, board members wrote on Facebook that they had created a fund to raise money to help Laurita’s family, and added that Hope Elephants owed Laurita more than $300,000 at the time of his death.
A Samoset official said that the service will be open to the public, but not to the media, out of respect for Laurita’s family. Hundreds of people are expected to attend the service.