James Laurita, DVM, 56, cofounder with his brother Tom of the Hope Elephants sanctuary in Hope, Maine, was found dead in the sanctuary barn on September 9, 2014. Laurita apparently fell while working alone, and was stepped on by one of the two resident former Carson & Barnes Circus elephants, Rosie and Opal.
“The elephant was not aggressive in any way. It was clearly an accident,” Maine state medicial examiner’s office administrator Mark Belserene told Rick Whittle of Associated Press. Belserene said the official cause of death was “asphyxiation and multiple fractures caused by compression of the chest.”
Both James and Tom Laurita were jugglers for the Carson & Barnes Circus in the late 1970s, Bangor Daily News staff writer Heather Steeves recalled in 2011, when Hope Elephants opened. Dropping out of college to tour with Carson & Barnes, James Laurita became “a ring announcer and eventually an elephant trainer for the circus on and off for several years,” Steeves continued, “before leaving to work with elephants at zoos around the country. By the late 1980s he returned to school and became a veterinarian before heading to Maine.”
Rosie and Opal, both more than 40 years old and retired from performing, resided at the Endangered Ark Foundation in Hugo, Oklahoma before coming to Hope Elephants in 2012. They were returned to the Endangered Ark Foundation a week after James Laurita’s death.
James Laurita was the first U.S. elephant handler to be killed on the job since July 2006, when a female elephant at the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee knocked down senior caregiver Joanna Burke with her trunk and then stepped on Burke.
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