HOPE — A former veterinarian who turned a small farm in midcoast Maine into a sanctuary for two retired circus elephants was killed Tuesday morning when one of the animals apparently stepped on him after he fell in their enclosure.

James Laurita, co-founder of Hope Elephants, was found dead in a corral shortly after he went in to feed the two elephants, Rosie and Opal, around 7 a.m.

Knox County Chief Deputy Sheriff Tim Carroll believes Laurita fell into the corral and hit his head on concrete. An autopsy conducted later Tuesday by the state medical examiner concluded that Laurita, 56, died from asphyxiation and multiple fractures resulting from compression of the chest, presumably because one of the giant mammals stepped on him.

It was not immediately clear Tuesday what would become of the Hope Elephants organization or the animals themselves in the wake of Laurita’s death. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been called in to investigate, police said.

A man who was keeping media away from the facility Tuesday said there is another elephant handler on staff and that an emergency plan is in place to take care of the elephants.

The sheriff’s department is still investigating, but has ruled Laurita’s death an accident – one that rocked this rural town in the Camden Hills area of Knox County.

“I had to send an email this morning to town officials and I almost didn’t want to type the words,” said Jon Duke, town administrator for Hope, a close-knit community of about 1,500 residents. “It’s hard to think of him in the past tense because he was so alive. He was such a force of nature.”

A small, handmade sign at the entrance of Hope Elephants on Tuesday alerted would-be visitors that the facility was closed, without saying why.

A number of people gathered outside the large, wood-sided barn, but none wanted to talk. Bouquets of flowers began to appear near a fence in the afternoon. The elephants were not visible.

“Jim’s passion for all animals, but especially elephants, was boundless,” Hope Elephants’ board of directors wrote on the company’s website. “It was Jim’s ability (to) share that passion with all around him that not only helped to make our organization a reality, but also enriched and enhanced the lives of all those who had a chance to know Jim. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Laurita family. We ask that you respect their privacy during this difficult time.”

Jim Laurita Explains Hope Elephants from Mobile Digital Arts on Vimeo.

Attempts Tuesday to reach Tom Laurita, Jim’s brother and the chairman of the board of directors for Hope Elephants, were not successful.

Several townspeople at the Hope General Store also declined to talk to a Press Herald reporter. One woman said the news was “still too raw.”

The two brothers, originally from New York, joined the circus in the 1970s as a juggling duo. They toured the Midwest with Carson & Barnes Circus.

Eventually, Tom graduated to ringmaster while Jim handled the elephants, including Rosie and Opal, both Asian elephants that were young circus performers at the time. The elephants are now in their 40s.

After leaving the circus life, Laurita got a veterinary degree from Cornell University and went on to work at the Bronx Zoo in New York City and at Wildlife Safari in Oregon, specializing in elephants. He moved his family to Maine two decades ago and opened a veterinary practice in Rockport.

When Laurita approached town officials a few years ago about bringing two retired elephants to his property on Hatchet Mountain Road, far away from the circus lights, the idea raised some concerns, Duke said.

“There are some towns where people don’t want chickens in their backyard, let alone an elephant,” he said. “But Jim convinced all his neighbors. He had a vision and he was committed to making it happen.”

In 2011, Jim and Tom brought their old friends to Maine and founded their nonprofit, Hope Elephants, after raising more than $100,000 in donations from individuals and local small businesses.

The nonprofit’s mission was two-fold: Laurita would care for the elephants and provide rehabilitation and therapy, and the facility would welcome school groups and others to raise awareness about the creatures, which are endangered. The International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates that there are about 50,000 living in the wild and 16,000 in captivity.

In 2011, Laurita told The Boston Globe that plans for the therapeutic facility for the elephants included acupuncture, as well as ultrasound, nutritional support for arthritis, and a water treadmill for high-resistance, low-impact exercise. The facility also has hosted school groups interested in learning about the animals.

The goal, Laurita said at the time, was to “come up with new methods to treat arthritic animals. We’re going to give (Rosie) the kind of therapy a racehorse would receive.”

The facility drew criticism from animal rights groups. They called the center unsafe and inhumane, and said Maine’s cold climate was inappropriate for elephants.

“They might think they’re doing something kind for the elephant, but in truth they’re not,” Melissa Gates, founding director of Animal Rights Maine, told the Globe in 2011. “It seems to us that they plan to continue to exploit this elephant.”

The California-based group In Defense of Animals even got comedian Lily Tomlin to write a letter to Gov. Paul LePage opposing Laurita’s plans.

But Laurita went through the regulatory process at the local, state and federal levels, and succeeded in bringing the elephants to Maine.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s animal and plant health inspection division conducted its annual inspection of Hope Elephants in April and found the facility in compliance with federal regulations. Laurita’s license for the two elephants was active.

Duke said Laurita always had the support of the town and that Hope Elephants has helped put the community on the map.

“Anyone I talk to about Hope says, ‘Oh, you’re the elephant town,’ ” he said. “They think I’m up there wrangling elephants.

“But that’s all Jim. He was a great friend to a lot of people.”