PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — A veterinarian and co-founder of Hope Elephants, which cares for retired circus elephants, was killed when one of the animals stepped on him, police said in ruling his death an accident.
Knox County Sheriff's Office deputies said they found James Laurita, 56, unresponsive Tuesday in the barn at the foundation in Hope, about 90 miles northeast of Portland.
Laurita appeared to have fallen before one of the foundation's two elephants apparently stepped on him, police said, citing a medical examiner's report.
Tending to the animals was part of Laurita's daily routine at the facility he founded with his brother Tom in 2011. Hope Foundation's two Asian elephants, Rosie and Opal, arrived in 2012.
"The elephant was not aggressive in any way. It was clearly an accident," said Mark Belserene, administrator for the state medical examiner's office, who added that the official cause of death is "asphyxiation and multiple fractures caused by compression of the chest."
Laurita sold his veterinarian practice in nearby Camden in 2011 to establish Hope Elephants, where he worked as a caregiver and educator. He lived with his family in the area.
Laurita had worked with Opal and Rosie decades ago when he was an elephant handler for the traveling Carson & Barnes Circus.
County Chief Deputy Tim Carroll described Laurita as "greatly beloved in the community for all the work he does." Hope Elephants released a statement saying the organization was "deeply saddened" by the loss of its founder.
"Jim's passion for all animals, but especially elephants, was boundless," the statement said.
Laurita "passed on his passion and the importance of wildlife conservation" through his educational outreach efforts, it said.