The founder of an elephant sanctuary in Maine was accidentally crushed to death by the animals, according to the Knox County Sheriff's Office.
Jim Laurita, executive director of Hope Elephants, was found unresponsive in a barn in Hope, Maine, this morning by authorities, according to a statement from the Sheriff's Office. Laurita was routinely tending to the elephants when he fell and struck his head on a cement floor.
"The investigation shows that the injuries are consistent, while Dr. Laurita was on the ground from a fall that one of the elephants accidentally stepped on Dr. Laurita causing internal injuries with multiple fractures and ultimately causing asphyxia," the statement said. The death has been ruled accidental.
Laurita, who received his doctorate in veterinary medicine from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, sold his vet practice in Camden, Maine, in 2011 to focus on establishing Hope Elephants. (Get more elephant news on the Voice for Elephants blog.)
The refuge, which houses injured or orphaned animals, is currently home to two elephants, Rosie and Opal.
The organization's website described Laurita's roles as elephant caregiver, enthusiastic educator, and energetic collaborator.
In a statement, the organization said it was "deeply saddened" by the loss of its founder.
"Jim's passion for all animals, but especially elephants, was boundless," the statement said.
"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."