As if Maine didn’t have enough headaches, now we’ve got Lily Tomlin threatening us over an elephant.

The Hollywood actress and comedian, who also happens to be a longtime advocate for elephants in captivity, wrote Gov. Paul LePage last week to say she was “stunned” that veterinarian Jim Laurita is moving ahead with plans to bring an aging, ailing elephant named Rosie to his midcoast hometown of Hope.

More on Laurita’s plans in a minute. First, a sneak peek at what the good doctor is up against.

“Should approval be given to bring Rosie to Maine,” warned Tomlin in her letter to LePage, “it is certain to draw the ire of elephant lovers around the world and unwanted controversy to your wonderful state.”

LePage, bless him, has so far taken a pass on responding directly to this one. (Although the mere mention of our Republican governor and an elephant in the same brouhaha is enough to make our headline writers swoon.)

But Laurita, who worked with Rosie as an elephant handler for the Carson and Barnes Circus more than 30 years ago, said last week he’s forging ahead with his plans to make Maine the 42-year-old pachyderm’s new home.


It all started a few months ago when Laurita, who’s had a veterinary practice in Camden since he came here with a degree from Cornell University in 1990, decided to go beyond the farm animals and small pets and do something big. Really big.

In addition to his work with the circus back in his college days (he and his brother, Tom, first joined Carson and Barnes as jugglers), Laurita, now 53, later worked with elephants at the Bronx Zoo and actually managed his own herd at the nonprofit Wildlife Safari animal park in Oregon. He also studied elephants in India during his time at Cornell.

“They’re very, very intelligent animals,” Laurita said. “That’s what makes them so fascinating.”

Laurita long has kept tabs on Rosie, who is now retired from the circus and living with a 27-elephant herd at Carson and Barnes’ winter facility in Oklahoma.

Aware that she has a bad leg — a tussle with another elephant left her with nerve damage that led to serious arthritis — Laurita received permission from the circus to bring Rosie to Hope for what sounds (at least to some) like a sweet retirement/rehab deal.

His plan: Build a 52- by 60-foot metal barn, complete with a heated concrete floor topped by a few inches of sand, an underwater treadmill big enough for, well, an elephant, and a one-acre paddock secured by a sturdy fence.


Upon Rosie’s arrival (he’s hoping this fall), Laurita will provide her daily physical therapy that includes, in addition to the low-impact treadmill, daily ultrasound and acupuncture treatment. She’ll even be the star of a 24/7 Internet “elephant cam.”

“She’s going to receive treatments that she couldn’t receive down there (in Oklahoma) or really anyplace else in the world,” Laurita said. “That’s kind of the groundbreaking thing we’re going to be doing — we’re going to be applying to her the kind of physical-therapy modalities that are applied now to race horses or dogs.”

There’s also an educational component: Laurita plans to invite school groups and other visitors in to learn about Rosie and, more importantly, the plight of elephants that are still being killed at a rate of 100 a day for their ivory in Africa and are disappearing at equally alarming numbers due to shrinking habitat in Asia.

To be sure, Laurita hasn’t jumped through all the hoops just yet.

He recently got the go-ahead from the town of Hope to start building his facility — the fencing arrived last week.

Once the construction is complete, he’ll need to obtain a variety of state and federal permits before he can actually bring Rosie to Maine. (Maine, it turns out, has two sets of regulations on the keeping and handling of elephants. Who knew?)


And finally, Laurita and his brother, who’s overseeing the finances, still need to raise more money through their nonprofit organization — Laurita said they’re “over a third of the way” toward their $300,000 goal.

“Certainly this is going to be a major upgrade from where she is now,” Laurita said, adding that Rosie is a “super sweet” animal who over the years has bonded better with humans than with her fellow elephants. (Laurita thinks that may be because she was a bottle-fed orphan.)

Enter Tomlin and In Defense of Animals, an animal rights group with which the comedian is affiliated.

Tomlin could not be reached for comment on her letter to LePage, which refers to Laurita’s vision as an “unsafe roadside zoo” and warns that bringing Rosie here “is not good for the elephant or for your state.”

But In Defense of Animals elephant campaign director Catherine Doyle said in a telephone interview from California that Laurita, while well-intentioned, has put forth “a very naive plan.”

“A lot of people, when they think about elephants, they think about Dumbo,” Doyle said. “But with elephants, that’s the farthest thing from the truth. They’re actually very intelligent, very powerful and dangerous wild animals. And unpredictable — I guess you’d have to throw that in there too.”


Doyle said she worries about Rosie not getting enough exercise, not having enough company, being stuck in the barn for months on end because it will be too cold to go outside and, given all the above, getting a tad ornery once she realizes she’s not in Oklahoma anymore.

“I am most worried that someone in contact with the elephant would be injured or killed,” Doyle said.

Laurita counters that he plans to bring in another elephant from the same herd early next year to provide Rosie some companionship, that Rosie will get all the exercise her bum leg can handle, that no one will have access to Rosie unless Laurita is present, that he has a comprehensive emergency plan already in place and that his detractors are missing one important point.

“This is not a facility for a healthy young elephant,” Laurita said. “This is a dedicated physical-therapy facility for an injured old elephant.”

Contacted late last week, state veterinarian Donald Hoenig said he’s heard from both sides and will reserve judgment until the barn is up and Laurita is ready for state and federal inspections.

But in a letter he drafted in response to Tomlin, Hoenig noted, “If Dr. Laurita’s facility meets the requirements of the (local, state and federal governments), he will be permitted to bring this elephant to Maine.”


So how’s Rosie handling the Hope-to-Hollywood hubbub?

“I think she understands that she’s getting more attention and something is happening,” said Laurita, who visited her a few weeks ago. “She’s very interested in all the attention she’s getting.”

Meaning Rosie’s probably no different from any other 6,000-pound retiree whose late-in-life move to midcoast Maine has come under attack by a world-famous comedian.

She’s all ears.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:


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