Photograph by Jason Kurtis

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In a still photo taken from a video, James Laurita stands with an elephant at his sanctuary the day before his death.

Photograph by Jason Kurtis

Elephant Refuge Founder Mourned After Being Crushed to Death

Jim Laurita was found dead in an elephant corral in Hope, Maine.

A day after Jim Laurita, co-founder of an elephant sanctuary in Maine, was accidentally crushed to death by the animals, people are mourning and remembering the onetime circus juggler with a lifelong love for elephants.

Laurita, 56, elephant manager and curator of Hope Elephants, was found unresponsive in a corral in Hope, Maine, on Tuesday morning by authorities, according to a statement from the Knox County Sheriff's Office. Laurita was routinely tending to the elephants when he fell and struck his head on a cement floor.

On Tuesday evening, several people gathered in front of the closed facility, according to Jason Kurtis, National Geographic Studio's operations producer, who was reporting a story on Hope Elephants the day before Laurita died.

"Some were crying, and others were hugging and comforting each other. He will certainly be dearly missed by everyone who knew him," Kurtis said by email.

Others took to social media to communicate their grief.

"You have left a mighty legacy; we will not forget," Kitty Lamb Jackson wrote on Hope Elephants' Facebook page.

"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 Sheriff's Office statement said. The death has been ruled accidental.

Hope Elephants, which houses injured or orphaned animals, is currently home to two retired circus 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."

Animal Lover

Laurita put off going to college to join the Carson and Barnes Circus in the late 1970s, the Bangor Daily News reported in a 2013 profile of Hope Elephants. He began working with elephants, and "that work kind of took over because I enjoyed that more than juggling," Laurita told the newspaper.

Laurita received his doctorate in veterinary medicine from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and worked at the Bronx Zoo as the head elephant trainer. He also traveled to India to work with elephants.

But the circus elephants he had worked with as a youth stuck in his mind.

"I love all animals. Elephants, chihuahuas. I work with all animals. But always in the back of my mind, my brother Tom and I had the idea that we had to do something special for these girls some day," Laurita, referring to Rosie and Opal, told the newspaper.

"So when it became time for me to slow down as a vet, we went back to this project."

In 2011, Laurita sold his vet practice in Camden, Maine, to focus on establishing Hope Elephants and take care of Rosie and Opal. (Get more elephant news on the Voice for Elephants blog.)

"It was clear from the moment I walked in the door that Dr. Jim truly cared for Rosie and Opal," National Geographic's Kurtis said.

"His focus was on making sure that they were being properly cared for, and seemed to treat them like his children," he said.

"He seemed to take great pride in the facility he worked so hard to set up for the elephants, delighting in the fact that he had given them a comfortable place to live out the golden years of their retirement."

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Jim Laurita feeds a carrot to a retired circus elephant in 2012.

"Elephants Don't Forget"

However, not everyone agreed with the work of Hope Elephants.

"It is another example of why elephants should not be held captive in circuses and zoos. Carson and Barnes Circus is known for its abuse of elephants, and elephants don't forget. He called his place a sanctuary for elephants, but it wasn't," Joyce Poole, cofounder of the conservation group ElephantVoices, said by email.

Poole said that retired elephants should be placed in large sanctuaries in warm climates with a natural-habitat setting, social interaction with several other elephants, and year-round access to the outdoors. (Also see "Orphan Elephants Lack Social Knowledge Key for Survival.")

"Jim Laurita's death is very sad, but it is not an uncommon occurrence among those who work with elephants who have been abused over a lifetime."

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