HOPE, Maine — A failure to follow proper safety standards led to the death in September of the founder of the Hope Elephants refuge, according to federal investigators.
“James Laurita’s death is a tragic example of what can happen when employers fail to follow industry requirements and to take the necessary steps to protect employees,” Maryann Medeiros, area director for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration of Maine, said in a press release issued Friday. “The care and management of elephants and other wild animals can be a rewarding profession, but not if it comes at the cost of a worker’s life.”
Laurita, the 56-year-old co-founder and manager of the refuge and a beloved area veterinarian, was found dead in the compound on Sept. 9. He suffered a crushed chest when one of his elephants stepped on him after he fell and hit his head inside the animals’ pen.
OSHA did not issue a citation to Hope Elephants in connection with the death but the regulatory agency did send the organization a “hazard alert letter” informing the board of directors of the hazards of having individuals routinely enter the elephant enclosure without protection against crushing injuries caused by elephants.
The two elephants who were kept in Hope were returned to Endangered Ark Foundation in Hugo, Oklahoma, a week after Laurita died. The ranch is where Rosie and Opal had lived before Laurita brought them to Maine. The elephants are retired from the circus.
While elephants are no longer present at the facility, the OSHA letter instructs the board to notify the labor department agency of its progress in protecting workers if and when elephants are brought back to the facility or to any other owned or managed by the company.
Attempts to reach someone from Hope Elephants Board were not immediately successful Friday.
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ standard for elephant management and care stipulates that “institutions have adequate infrastructure to manage and care for elephants with barriers and/or restraints in place to increase employee safety. The AZA measures compliance with the standard through a determination that elephant care providers do not share the same unrestricted space with elephants, except in certain well-defined circumstances.”
PETA Foundation Deputy General Counsel Delcianna Winders said OSHA’s recommendations “should be a wake-up call to all facilities holding elephants.”
“Hope Elephants co-founder James Laurita would be alive today if Hope Elephants had — like all accredited sanctuaries and reputable zoos — adopted a protected-contact system of management, in which elephants and humans are always separated by a protective barrier,” Winders said.
The nonprofit agency Hope Elephants was founded in 2011 by Laurita, a veterinarian, and his brother, Tom Laurita. The brothers had worked with the Carson & Barnes Circus in the midwest when they were young, and although they had a juggling act, they also had to take a second job and were assigned to work with elephants, according to an earlier BDN article. That’s when they met Rosie and Opal, two Asian circus elephants
Later, Jim Laurita worked at the Bronx Zoo and as the head elephant trainer for a wildlife safari park in Oregon, and he traveled to India to work with elephants there before settling in the small village of Hope and starting a veterinary practice in Rockport. But he and Tom Laurita never forgot the circus elephants they had met in the late 1970s.
Jim Laurita founded the nonprofit Hope Elephants and built a 1,200-square-foot barn in 2012 to bring the 8,000-pound arthritic elephants to Maine to try different types of physical therapy.
It was the veterinarian’s practice to wake up early to feed the two elephants, who slept in a special corral in the barn next to his house, Chief Deputy Tim Carroll of the Knox County sheriff’s office said last fall. Laurita would then go to his house for a cup of coffee, returning a bit later to tend to them again. It was during his second visit of the day on Sept. 9, when he was working alone inside the elephant corral, that the veterinarian appears to have fallen and hit his head on the edge of the concrete walkway that bordered part of the elephant enclosure, Carroll said.
When paramedics arrived at the scene, the elephants were still in the corral, where they did not seem to be aggressive or excited, he said.
“As far as the scene goes, there’s nothing disturbed traumatically in the area. Nothing that leads us to believe anything other than that he was on the ground and one of the elephants accidentally stepped on him,” Carroll said. “From what I’ve been told, elephants are very caring animals. If they sensed something was wrong, they might have gone to help.”