After receiving a barrage of criticism and questions about its decision to send two retired circus elephants back to Oklahoma, Hope Elephants’ board of directors issued a statement Thursday explaining why the death of their caretaker necessitates that Rosie and Opal return to their previous home.

James Laurita, 56, the only person permitted in Maine to care for the elephants, was killed Tuesday when one of the animals stepped on him after he fell and hit his head on a concrete walkway in their corral.

Tom Laurita, his brother and fellow founder of Hope Elephants, has said he believes Rosie used her foot and trunk to try to help him, but killed him accidentally. Police have said there was no indication the elephants had acted aggressively.

The board announced Wednesday that the elephants would return to their previous home — an elephant care facility in Oklahoma. The operator of that facility owns Rosie and Opal and has been leasing them to Hope Elephants, the board clarified Thursday.

Following Wednesday’s announcement, posts on Hope Elephants’ Facebook page pleaded for the elephants to stay and not be sent back to the circus. They called the decision “heartbreaking” and “devastating,” compounding the loss of Laurita. They accused the board of throwing away Laurita’s life’s work.

The board explained Thursday that the elephants’ previous home, the Endangered Ark Foundation, is not the circus.

“They will be in a very good facility with the herd of ‘sisters’ they have known for decades. Jim spoke very highly of the level of veterinary and other care the elephants receive at Endangered Ark,” the board’s statement said.

The Lauritas founded Hope Elephants as a non-profit organization in 2011 and raised about $100,000 from individuals and businesses to build a facility for developing and administering new techniques to rehabilitate injured or aging elephants. The innovative care would begin with Rosie, who James Laurita had worked with in Carson and Barnes Circus decades earlier and who had developed arthritis.

Laurita said at the time he planned to provide her with physical therapy, including ultrasound and acupuncture treatments. The idea was then to share those techniques with other veterinarians and trainers.

The board said the staff at the Oklahoma facility has agreed to continue the same special care for Rosie, who also has nerve damage in her trunk, and Opal, whose limbs and joints have deteriorated. The elephants’ future caretakers also have talked about extending the same level of treatment to other elephants in the herd, Hope Elephants’ board said.

Laurita was the only handler and veterinarian qualified to take care of the elephants in Hope, the board said. The organization’s eventual plan was to bring in more handlers and veterinarians to help Laurita.

“But Jim always told us that if anything happened to him before we could do that, the elephants needed to go back to their herd in Oklahoma,” the board said.

The board did not say when the elephants would leave Maine. Phone calls and questions sent by email to Hope Elephants this week were not returned.

In its statement, the board vowed to keep Hope Elephants going and thanked the people from all over the world who offered their sympathy this week, saying the organization was unaware of and overwhelmed by the scope of its influence.

“The people who are responsible to keep Jim’s legacy alive are determined to do that. Please give us some time to mourn and regroup,” the board said. “We are looking for ways to continue our work, and to bring Rosie and Opal back if we can do that.”

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

[email protected]

Twitter: @lesliebridgers

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