HOPE — Maine has its moose, lobsters and puffins. Add elephants to the list.
Two retired circus elephants, 41-year-old Opal and 43-year-old Rosie, have been transplanted to a newly built elephant rehabilitation center in an unlikely spot, the countryside of Maine.
Jim Laurita worked with Opal and Rosie decades ago when he was an elephant handler for a traveling circus. A veterinarian, Laurita now treats the Asian elephants for ailments and works to make their retirement comfortable in what could be described as an old folk’s home for elephants. He gives tours to school groups and has made it his mission to spread the word about the need to protect elephants from extinction.
“These guys are the Grand Canyon of animals, and they’re worth preserving,” Laurita said on a recent day inside the barn he built for the animals.
Elephants are the world’s largest land animals. Slightly smaller than their African counterparts, Asian elephants are endangered, with fewer than 50,000 living in the wild and 16,000 more in captivity, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Laurita, 54, and his brother, Tom, worked for Carson & Barnes Circus in the late 1970s and early ’80s, traveling across the Midwest. Laurita handled elephants, his brother was a ringmaster and they had a juggling act together.
Laurita went on to become a veterinarian and worked with elephants during stints at the Bronx Zoo and at Wildlife Safari in Oregon before settling down with his wife in Hope, a town of about 1,500 people outside the picturesque coastal town of Camden.
A few years ago, Laurita and his brother had the dream to bring Opal and Rosie to Maine from an elephant facility in Oklahoma. They formed a nonprofit, raised about $100,000 from individuals and small businesses and built an elephant center in a state known for lighthouses and long winters — but certainly not elephants.
Since the elephants’ arrival in late October, Laurita has been treating Rosie for nerve damage to her shoulder with therapeutic ultrasound, ointment and exercise. He uses foot baths with water jets to treat her as well as Opal’s leg and foot problems. In time, he plans to use laser treatments, acupuncture and hydrotherapy with an underwater treadmill system.
He says the first three weeks the animals were at his center have been the “best three weeks of their lives.”
Laurita’s plans came under fire even before ground was broken for the barn. An animal rights group, In Defense of Animals, called Laurita’s center unsafe and inhumane, said it would “masquerade as an elephant ‘sanctuary'” and deemed Maine’s climate inappropriate for elephants.
The California-based group even got comedian Lily Tomlin to write a letter to Maine Gov. Paul LePage opposing Laurita’s plans.
Laurita shrugs it off. Asian elephants in their native range live in places where it snows and several zoos in cold climates have Asian elephants, he said. Like people, some elephants like the snow while others don’t, he added.
He maintained that there is no better place Rosie and Opal could be right now.
“Show me any other elephants getting this kind of care,” Laurita said. “I challenge you to find that.”
The animals, 14,800 pounds between them, live in a 3,120-square-foot barn with a 28-foot-high ceiling at its peak and the smell of hay in the air. On this day, they eat hay and throw it onto their backs with their long trunks, rub against each other and rock back and forth on the sand-covered floor that is heated with an underground radiant heating system.
Outside the barn, the animals have a little more than an acre to roam in a paddock protected by two electrified fences where they can wander among a few trees, lie in a large pile of sand or roll in a mud hole they’ve begun making. Shortly after arriving, the pair uprooted and knocked down an apple tree for fun, then trumpeted loudly with pride.
Every day, they each eat 3½ bales of hay, 10 pounds of Purina elephant chow and another 10 pounds of fruit and vegetables, Laurita said. They have a liking for carrots, apples, broccoli and cantaloupes but haven’t taken to mushrooms, asparagus or sprouts.
For now, there are no plans to bring more elephants here. The focus instead is on raising additional funds for a planned educational center, a viewing deck, the underwater treadmill and day-to-day operating costs.
Laurita wants his elephants to be in full view of as many people as possible. School groups have been visiting regularly to hear Laurita talk about the need to protect the animals, which are under threat from habitat loss and poachers who go after their ivory.
High school senior Greg Stevens, 17, had never seen an elephant before visiting Laurita’s place with other students from a school in Belfast.
“It’s pretty cool they’re helping them out here,” he said. “I didn’t even know they could live here.”