Two retired circus elephants who have been living in a Maine animal sanctuary since 2011 will be returned to a previous home, probably in Oklahoma, after the death of their caretaker Tuesday. It appears he was killed when one of the animals stepped on him at the rehabilitation center in Hope.

The board of directors of Hope Elephants announced the plan Wednesday and established a fund in the name of the organization’s co-founder, James Laurita. He was killed around 7 a.m. Tuesday after he went to feed the animals and apparently fell and hit his head on a concrete walkway in the elephants’ corral.

Laurita’s brother, Tom Laurita, said in a statement Wednesday that he believes one of the elephants, Rosie, who weighs over 7,500 pounds, inadvertently killed his brother when she used her leg and trunk to try to help him after he fell.

Tom Laurita said his brother, whom police said had a head injury consistent with a fall, may have gone down because of a bad hip, heart attack or some other reason.

“Many people have asked me how this accident happened,” he said. “Nobody will ever know for sure.”

It is not uncommon, however, for elephants to be responsible for the deaths of their handlers.

Between 1990 and 2013, 16 people were killed by captive elephants in the U.S., according to Responsible Exotic Animal Ownership, a Nevada-based nonprofit, Most of the people were handlers, trainers or zookeepers.

The most recent fatality known to the group occurred in October, when a 41-year-old elephant charged a longtime zookeeper in Springfield, Missouri.

Knox County Chief Deputy Sheriff Tim Carroll said there was no evidence the elephant attacked Laurita, 56. The sand on the corral floor wasn’t disturbed and the elephants were calm, he said.

“Elephants are very affectionate,” Carroll said he learned from talking to people associated with the center. “If something is wrong, they might try to help in their way.”

The state Medical Examiner’s Office determined that Laurita died from asphyxiation and multiple fractures resulting from compression of the chest.

Carroll said Laurita’s wife found him when she came into the corral from their house, which is attached to the barn.

A statement from the board said Hope Elephants will continue to exist and has been in the middle of a strategic planning process, which will be redefined as a result of Laurita’s death.

Hope Elephants was founded by James and Tom Laurita in 2011 to provide a home and rehabilitation center for injured and aging elephants, while educating the public about the animals.

Residents Rosie and Opal are Asian elephants in their 40s. Laurita worked with Rosie more than 30 years ago as an elephant handler for the Carson & Barnes Circus and had kept tabs on her since then.

Over the years, Rosie sustained nerve damage in her shoulder and trunk, which remains partially paralyzed, and Opal’s limbs and joints have deteriorated, according to Hope Elephants’ website.

“(Laurita) taught us the meaning of stewardship and was unequivocal in expressing his belief that our first responsibility was to ensure the continued well-being of Rosie and Opal. To that end, at least for the present, we will be returning the girls to the well-established elephant care facility from which they came to us,” the board’s statement said.

Although the board did not name the facility, and calls to Hope Elephants were not returned Wednesday, previous reports have said the elephants came to Maine from an elephant retirement facility in Oklahoma.

The board did not say when the elephants – whom Laurita called “his girls” – would be leaving Maine. A call to the Endangered Ark Foundation, a elephant care facility in Oklahoma, was not immediately returned Wednesday afternoon.

The animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals issued a statement Wednesday calling Laurita’s death a “wake-up call” about keeping barriers between elephants and humans, and urged Hope Elephants to send the animals to an “accredited sanctuary in a more appropriate, warmer climate.”

“There, they would be handled safely and humanely and be able to explore vast territories in the company of other elephants,” said Delcianna Winders, PETA’s deputy general counsel.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating Laurita’s death, looking into what protocols were in place at the facility and whether they were followed, said Karen Billups, assistant area director in OSHA’s Augusta office.

She said OSHA staff members have visited the site. If there were violations, she said, the agency would have six months to produce a report, although it probably wouldn’t take that long.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s animal and plant health inspection service last conducted an annual inspection of the facility in April, finding it to be in compliance with federal regulations. Laurita had an active license for the two elephants.

After working in the circus and conducting research on elephants in India, Laurita, who is originally from New York, attended veterinary school at Cornell University. He later moved his family to Maine and worked as a veterinarian in Camden before selling his practice to focus on Hope Elephants.

“As we all work through our sadness, the Hope Elephants family and community are 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,” Tom Laurita said.

The board said the Jim Laurita Fund will benefit his wife and two sons. Laurita was owed more than $300,000 by Hope Elephants, mainly in deferred salary and for loans he made to the organization and for equipment purchases. Donations can be made at

Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at:

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Twitter: @lesliebridgers