Vet wants to rehabilitate old circus elephant in Hope

Posted April 20, 2011, at 5:30 p.m.
Last modified April 22, 2011, at 2:07 p.m.
Rosie the elephant.
Photo courtesy of Jim Laurita
Rosie the elephant.

HOPE, Maine — Jim Laurita, a veterinarian in Hope, feels bad for Rosie the elephant. He wants to give her a new home in Maine and help her with her hurt leg.

Rosie suffers from arthritis. Rather than let her live out her days moseying about in Oklahoma with a herd of 27 other elephants from the Carson and Barnes Circus, Laurita and the circus have a new idea: Send Rosie to Maine and use her as a sort of experiment in elephant physical therapy. Laurita then will share any tactics that work with the circus to help trainers with any future bouts of arthritis in the herd.

“If we can benefit the elephants in our care, we will,” said  David Rawls, the Carson and Barnes Circus’ director of marketing.

Rosie is his only arthritic elephant, but the condition is relatively common in the industry, Rawls said Wednesday.

“This guy has credentials and he’s assured us of what he’s going to do and so long as it benefits our elephants we’re willing to do it — so long as he gets the blessing of the [U.S. Department of Agriculture],” he said.

Laurita will have to get local approval as well as state and federal licenses to move and house the animal on his land in Hope. He has applied for the state and federal licenses, and if he gets them, the circus has agreed to send Rosie.

Laurita plans to create a nonprofit organization called Hope 4 Elephants, which would help animals like Rosie through health issues while educating local schoolchildren about elephants.

The veterinarian plans to try several therapeutic procedures for Rosie’s arthritis, including ultrasound, which will deliver heat deep into her leg tissues. He also will try acupuncture with needles currently used for horses. Eventually, he hopes to try hydrotherapy and create a water treadmill for the elephant. This would all be supplemented by nutritional support, he said.

“It’s a big endeavor,” he said.

Although there are no formal plans, Laurita said it’s likely that the 1-acre paddock and barn would house only one elephant at a time. These elephants would be circus-trained.

This wouldn’t be the first time Laurita encounters Rosie. He and the 42-year-old elephant with a big head and a smallish body are old friends.

In the late 1970s Laurita dropped out of college to join Carson and Barnes Circus where Rosie lives. He worked as a juggler, a ring announcer and eventually an elephant trainer for the circus on and off for several years 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.

His newest endeavor is still in the preliminary stages.

“All we have right now is hot air basically. We’re at the beginning of a project we hope we can do,” Laurita said Wednesday.

Now he must begin fundraising for the project, which will include a heated barn placed on his 3-acre piece of land in Hope. The barn will be 60 feet by 52 feet and will have radiant heat, which could help Rosie’s leg. She will then have a 1-acre paddock fenced in “like a tennis court” but with thick steel cables to keep Rosie in and people and wildlife out.

“There will be no way she can get outside that fence,” Laurita told the Hope Planning Board during a Tuesday night pre-application meeting concerning the barn and fence.

The board made no decisions Tuesday, but asked Laurita to consider different safety aspects of the project, as well as elephant noise and odor before his next application hearing, which is not yet scheduled.

“The safety issues will be the biggest concern here,” said planning board chair Martie Cooper.

Laurita is working to get his licenses approved and to build the barn by late summer. If all goes well, he plans on Rosie moving in once the barn is completed.

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