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Crushing Death of Hope Elephants Founder Leaves Community in Shock

Courtesy Hope Elephants

Jim Laurita appeared on "MaineWatch" in September 2011. Watch above.

HOPE, Maine - The man who brought two retired circus elephants to live in Hope, Maine, died this morning from an apparent crushing injury caused by one of the animals. Jim Laurita, the executive director of Hope Elephants, was found dead in the animals' barn this morning. The local community is reeling from the loss of a beloved member of their town.

According to the Medical Examiner's office, the death is considered accidental. But the cause, says Administrator Mark Belserene, was asphyxiation and multiple fractures due to compression of the chest.

Police are continuing to investigate the sequence of events that led to Laurita's death. Meanwhile, members of the Hope community are grappling with the news. On Tuesday afternoon, the principal of Hope Elementary School, Danielle Fagonde, said students had not yet heard the news, and she had to let several staff members leave early because they were so distraught.

"I feel like I cannot wait until the day is over so I can go home and cry, because I certainly can't do it here or now," Fagonde says. "It's been a terrible shock to our school community."

Fagonde says the school took frequent field trips to Laurita's facility, and was working to incorporate the elephants into its ongoing curriculum. She says Laurita was an inspiring figure. "He said that in order for students to have a passion for ecology and to really take care of things and animals, they have to first have a love for them," she says.

Laurita brought elephants Rosie and Opal to Maine two years ago. It was a reunion for the trio - Laurita helped care for both elephants while working at the Carson and Barnes Circus in the late 1970s. The elephants eventually retired to a facility in Oklahoma, but Rosie suffered from arthritis and had nerve damage from being attacked by another elephant.

In a 2011 interview on MPBN's MaineWatch, Laurita explained why he wanted to bring Rosie to Maine. "They have the facilities to take care of her, but they don't have the facilities to meet her physical therapy needs," Laurita said. "So what we're going to do here is treat her like you would treat a valuable racehorse with an injury."

Laurita, who had become a veterinarian, said he wanted to give the elephants a good home to live out their lives. In a video he posted to Vimeo in 2012, he explained he also had an educational mission. Standing next to an elephant, Laurita gestures to one of its big, dark eyes, encircled by wrinkled skin.

"Look at that eye," he said. "That is not the eye of a lizard. That is not the eye of a mouse. That is the eye of an elephant. And when kids see the native intelligence of these creatures, they realize that this is not like visiting or dealing with a cat or a dog or a horse. This is a fellow sentient creature that can think."

The plan to bring elephants to the cold climate of Maine was not without its critics. An online petition opposing the plan garnered more than 50,000 signatures. Actress Lily Tomlin wrote a letter to Gov. Paul LePage urging him to stop Laurita's plan. But Laurita ultimately earned the necessary local and federal approval, and in the fall of 2012, Rosie and Opal arrived in Hope.

"You know, we were on the map, because Jim had this crazy idea to do it," says Jon Duke, the town administrator for Hope. He says even before the elephants came, Laurita was an important member of the community, making close bonds with families as a veterinarian caring for their pets. But when he brought Rosie and Opal, he connected the animals to the community.

"But Jim was their voice," Duke says. "Jim was able to take himself and be the voice for them and made their stories compelling and educated all of us - not just the kids, but the adults too. It's a real loss for all of us."

In an interview with MPBN shortly after the elephants arrived to Hope in 2012, Jim Laurita said in addition to rehabilitation and education, he had a third goal for Hope Elephants.

"Our third goal is really conservation," he said. "We want to really show people that if something is important to you, like conservation, you can pursue that, even on the coast of Maine, if you care to be."

Jim Laurita was 56 years old when he died Tuesday morning.