By Elizabeth Barber
September 10, 2014

A retired circus elephant has unintentionally killed a founder of the shelter where it lived.

James Laurita, a veterinarian and co-founder of Hope Elephants, died on Tuesday when one of the Maine-based refuge’s elephants stepped on him, the Portland Press Herald reports. His death has been ruled a tragic accident.

“The elephant was not aggressive in any way,” Mark Belserene, administrator for the state medical examiner’s office, told the Associated Press. “It was clearly an accident.”

Officials said Laurita, 56, was found unresponsive in the nonprofit’s barn in Hope, some 87 miles northeast of Portland, Maine. He appeared to have fallen down and hit his head before the elephant stepped on him, officials said.

Laurita first worked with elephants as a juggler and elephant handler in the Carson & Barnes Circus in the 1970s and ’80s, according to the Portland Press Herald. He later opened a veterinarian practice in Camden, Maine, but in 2011 sold it to found Hope Elephants with his brother, who had been a ringmaster in the same circus. The center tended to two elephants, Rosie and Opal, with whom Laurita had worked in the traveling circus and who suffered from a range of medical problems related to their big-top careers.

Laurita lived with his family in the Portland area.

“Jim’s passion for all animals, but especially elephants, was boundless,” wrote the Hope Foundation in a statement posted to their Facebook page. “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.”

The refuge has one other elephant handler on staff and an emergency plan is in place to ensure that the animals are cared for, according to the Portland Press Herald. Meanwhile, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been called to investigate the center, the newspaper said.

Hope Elephant’s Twitter account, last updated in December 2012, described the two elephants as acclimating well to their new home in Maine, munching on hay and lounging in the sunshine.

“Opal is throwing sand and trumpeting,” reads the last post. “Seems like joy from where I stand.”

Write to Elizabeth Barber at elizabeth.barber@timeasia.com.

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