I would like to respond to Cheryl Whitten's letter about the recent loss of Hope Elephants founder Dr. Jim Laurita. So many untruthful, uninformed, hurtful, negative things have been written and said about the organization, I felt compelled to second Cheryl Whitten's letter about the need for the real story to be given. Most, if not all, of the negative, hurtful, uninformed people obviously did not have a chance to go to Hope Elephants or meet Dr. Laurita. I feel sorry for them, I really do. Our family, like Mrs. Whitten's, was lucky enough to visit Hope Elephants twice and speak with Dr. Laurita. He was kind, intelligent, patient, caring, honest, and completely passionate about the plight of the endangered elephant. We first visited Hope in the summer of 2013 and the girls were still adjusting, staying close to their oversize barn, and basking in the hands on care, medical treatment, and love they received at their new home. We visited again on Mother's Day 2014 and I was so happy and pleased with the progress of the girls. They had more flexibility in their injured areas, and had gained the hundreds of pounds they needed for optimum health. It was also easy for even me to tell that their skin and foot condition had also improved. They had a carefully designed diet/exercise/enrichment program to which they had obviously responded. As a veterinarian, Dr. Laurita dedicated his life to animals and the education of the public concerning the terrible threat to elephants. They are on track to be extinct in 10 to 15 years. It is unimaginable that in this day and age, a cornerstone species which helps sustain the world's ecosystem would be allowed to be hunted to extinction.
Dr. Jim also made it his life's mission to improve the conditions and health of captive elephants. He made groundbreaking progress in the physical rehabilitation of Rosie and Opal and we will be watching to see if his methods are carried on to help other captive elephants. He was clear about wanting to help other elephants besides the girls and was only limited by funds and space. He worked with Rosie as a young man and because Rosie was hand-raised by humans, she lacked some social skills in dealing with other elephants. He found that Opal got along with Rosie was able to provide the social aspect they both needed. No elephant should ever be kept without a companion because like humans, they have an intense need for family.
Dr. Laurita, his brother Tom, and the countless volunteers at Hope Elephants were onto something big and the potential benefit to captive, injured elephants was unlimited. Being captive in a circus or for any other reason, is not an ideal situation but he was trying to help these animals.
Contrary to some uninformed people's opinions, this was not a money making enterprise. At the time of his death, Hope Elephants owed Dr. Laurita in excess of $300,000 because he invested everything he had and sometimes even refused what Tom Laurita called his "meager" paycheck if the money was needed for the girls. They depended on fundraising and donations for food, medical equipment, and salaries for their few paid employees.
In response to the fact that the girls had to be sent to the Endangered Ark Foundation in Oklahoma upon Dr. Laurita's death, according to their Facebook page the answer is simple, they had no choice. The girls were only on loan and the permits they had were based on the fact Dr. Laurita would be handling their care. Hope Elephants did not own the girls and I am not sure if it was lack of funds or being unable to imagine that Dr. Laurita would not outlive the girls. Dr. Jim made it a point to tell everyone at their visits that Hope Elephants was Rosie and Opal's forever home, I believe, because he honestly believed he would always be able to take care of his girls.
The accident that killed Dr. Laurita was tragic, and definitely an accident. The girls loved Dr. Jim and would never hurt him. Elephants are very intelligent, empathetic, nurturing, social animals. They are not aggressive unless threatened and have no natural predators except humans. They know when someone loves them and is trying to care for them.
Tom Laurita released this statement on the Facebook page:
"Jim was my brother and the best person I have ever known. He believed that the only life worth living is one of passion and conviction, kindness and honesty, and he completely lived out his beliefs. He was everyone’s favorite vet, a marvelous husband, father, son, brother, friend. He was the heart and soul of Hope Elephants and he threw his whole life into caring for Rosie and Opal. He loved them and they loved him. This was obvious to anyone who visited our facility. I will never forget how Rosie reacted to thunder. It scared her and she ran over to Jim and hugged him with her trunk like a child. His passing leaves hundreds of people in shock and grief. Thousands of people have been inspired to love elephants and care about their preservation through his tireless work.
Many people have asked me how this accident happened. Nobody will ever know for sure. Here is what I know. Jim fell and hit his head on the concrete walkway. We don’t know whether this occurred because his hip gave out (he needed a hip replacement), whether he had a cardiac event, or whether he fell for some other reason. He was incapacitated and could not get up. From what I know and believe, Rosie was trying to help him get up using her leg and injured trunk. It is instinctual for elephants to help a herd member who cannot get up by using their trunk and legs. Rosie weighs over 7,500 pounds so her attempts to help Jim, as he had helped her so faithfully, may have resulted in Jim’s death. The Maine State Medical Examiner’s office said, “The elephant was not aggressive in any way. It was clearly an accident.” It was a tragedy, too.
As we all work through our sadness, the Hope Elephants family and community is determined to do what Jim would certainly have wanted us to do; to take care of those without a voice and help stop the extinction of elephants. I believe that Jim gave his life for this cause."
Hope Elephants, the Laurita family, their board of directors, and their countless supporters are reeling from the loss of both Dr. Jim and the girls. I am hopeful that when they are able to start their recovery, they will be able to continue their mission to educate the public about the need to help both captive and wild elephants in Dr. Jim's memory.