Dr. James Laurita († 56 y.), veterinarian, elephant keeper and co-founder of the elephant sanctuary “Hope Elephants” died on 9 September 2014 due to serious injuries caused by 45 y.o. Asian elephant female “Rosie”.
Between 1977 and 1983, Laurita toured with Carson Barnes Circus where he, among other things, worked as an elephant handler. Afterwards, he got a veterinary degree and opened his own practice in Maine. In 2011, Dr. Laurita co-founded the organisation “Hope Elephants” along with his brother, in order to provide a retirement facility and best medical treatment for “Rosie” – an arthritic female Asian circus elephant Dr. Laurita knew from his time with the Carson & Barnes Circus. Animal rights groups opposed the project, arguing that the climate in Maine wasn`t suitable for elephants, that keeping only a single female would be inappropriate and that “Rosie” would be much better off in one of the well-established U.S. sanctuaries, either Hohenwald, TN, or PAWS, CA. However, Dr. Laurita went on with his plans and proceeded to build an elephant barn and outdoor enclosure of aprox. 4,000 sqm. In October 2012, he would receive “Rosie”, accompanied by another female, 42 y.o. “Opal”, who both came from the “Endangered Ark Foundation” in Hugo, Oklahoma, which is closely affiliated with the Carson & Barnes Circus and houses elephants retired from the circus. . Pictures of the elephants and enclosure of “Hope Elephants” can be viewed here: http://www.buzzfeed.com/chelseamarshall/meet-the-two-elephants-who-are-changing-the-future-of-elepha#4jdpj0j
Dr. Laurita and his family cared for both elephants in free contact, the management system used in all circuses, without taking the risks of unlimited contact between humans and elephants into account. On 9 September 2014, Dr. Laurita was found dead within the elephant enclosure by his wife. An authopsy concluded that massive violent compression of the chest caused multiple fractures and asphyxiation. Tom Laurita stated that his brother probably had fallen due to unknown reasons and that “Rosie” might have accidently injured him by attempting to help him to get up with her trunk and feet
Such absurd explanations (“the animal just wanted to help”, “the animal wanted to play”) are commonly used after deadly attacks of elephants and carnivores, especially in circuses, but are completely unfounded. Many aggressive incidents with captive elephants are documented by eyewhitnesses or video footage, and in almost all of those cases, there is no doubt that the elephant acted intentionally. Elephants are capable of metering their strength and weight excellently when dealing with neonates or other beings, including humans.
Due to the unpredictable risks in free contact management, all zoos accredited by the North American Zoo organization AZA have to use “protected contact” management from September 2014 on. This management system is very effective avoiding serious accidents with elephants, but it is likely that those zoos in the USA and Canada that still prefer circus-style, dominance-based free contact training will try to seek exception provision.
After Dr. Laurita´s death, “Rosie” and “Opal” will return to the facilities of the “Endangered Ark Foundation”. Both were only loaned to “Hope Elephants” while ownership remained with the Carson & Barnes Circus/ Endangered Ark Foundation, which excludes their transfer to a zoo with modern elephant facilities or preferably one of the U.S. sanctuaries.