Tribute to Maine’s Elephant Man

The Hope Elephants are something of a marvel. Their name comes from their location — in the tiny village of Hope, Maine, population around 1,500, about 20 minutes west of the tony hamlet of Camden. But the meaning fits as well. Former circus residents, Rosie and Opal, two post-menopausal Asian elephants, were brought here two years ago by┬áDr. James Laurita.

Labor Day Weekend, I went to one of the thrice-daily presentations at the Hope Elephants barn. It sounds like a touristy thing to do; it was anything but. For 30 minutes, Laurita talked about his student days working with his brother at Carson a&Barnes Circus as an jugglers and elephant tenders; how the circus led him to become a vet; how he went back to visit Rosie over the years. In 2011 he and his brother raised the money to build Rosie and Opal a state-of-the-art barn, complete with radiant heat beneath the sand floor.

His passion spilled out as he talked about the elephants’ injuries — at the trunk and feet of other female elephants in a matriarchal battle for dominance — took them through simple exercises designed to strengthen Rosie’s damaged trunk and Opal’s stiff leg. Both leaned in for a spray of the hose, then the hose went straight into thirsty throats and mouths. Six more circus-retired elephants are on a waiting list to come to the Hope refuge, but the massive tech-savvy barns they need don’t come cheap.

So it was with surprising sadness that I learned last week that Laurita, 56, died just days after my visit. Tending to the elephants late one night, apparently he fell and was stepped on by one of his charges. No malice, just an accident.

One of the great gifts of traveling is the things you don’t expect…the gourmet shop plopped unexpectedly in the middle of the countryside, the general store selling both guns and wedding gowns. The passion of a man who battled the forces of economics and what would seem to be common sense to make his odd dream come true. That’s worth celebrating, even at such a cost.