Caretaker died of multiple fractures, compression of chest
HOPE, Maine —Elephants named Rosie and Opal will leave Maine after the death of their caretaker, Dr. Jim Laurita.
The 56-year-old veterinarian brought the former circus performers from Oklahoma to Maine two years ago. The board of the group Hope Elephants announced the move back to Oklahoma on Wednesday.
On the same day, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner announced Laurita died from "multiple fractures" and "compression of the chest." Investigators said an elephant stepped on him.
"Doctor Laurita's death was entirely preventable," said Brittany Peet, who works as counsel for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in Washington, D.C.
"These are elephants who have learned to associate that 'human' means 'beating,'" she said.
Peet said while Laurita's passion was commendable, living in a heated barn was not the right environment for them.
"These elephants deserve a true retirement, which is a retirement to an appropriate climate, where they will never have to be relegated to a barn to protect them from the bitterly cold winter," she said.
Officials said the death on Tuesday was accidental.
The Knox County Sheriff's Office said the investigation shows that Laurita was on the ground from a fall and one of the elephants accidentally stepped on him, causing his death.
Investigators believe Laurita had been dead for 20 to 30 minutes before he was found by his wife, Chief Deputy Tim Carroll, of the Knox County Sheriff's Office, said. Laurita had left his home to care for the elephants around 6:45 a.m.
When he didn't return, his wife checked on him and found his body.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration said it is investigating Laurita's death.
In a statement posted on the website Tuesday afternoon, members of Hope Elephants say they are "deeply saddened" by Laurita's death.
"Jim's passion for all animals, but especially elephants, was boundless," the statement read in part. "It was Jim's ability (to) 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."
Hope Elephants provides a home for injured and aging elephants.
The board of directors said in a post on Facebook that the two elephants, Rosie and Opal, will be returning to their original home.
"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," the statement said.
Officials told WMUR's sister station WMTW it was speculation to say one of the elephants was trying to help him.
A recent inspection by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found no violations at Hope Elephants.
But the organization had issues of noncompliance before the elephants arrived in 2012.
The website also said Laurita gave up his veterinary practice in Camden in 2011 to help establish Hope Elephants.
The organization has set up The Jim Laurita Fund. Donations can be made by sending money to: Hope Elephants - Jim Laurita Fund, Hope Elephants, P.O Box 2025, Hope, ME 04847.