Elephants in Maine? Ayuh. A new and very unusual animal sanctuary opens in Hope.by Diana von Hallett
Coastal Journal contributor
HOPE — Ask anyone what large animals are found in Maine, and they will invariably list moose, deer and bears. Chances are, they will not include elephants. That is about to change, though. Later this fall, two elephants, Rosie and Opal, will be making Hope, Maine, their home. Granted, they will be “from-aways,” but then, many of the humans who call themselves Mainers are also “from-aways.”
Rosie and Opal are 40-somethings, who will make their home the Hope Elephant facility. Brothers Jim and Tom Laurita are the masterminds behind Hope Elephants. Both met Rosie and became fascinated with elephants years ago, when they worked with the Carson and Barnes circus. Jim explained that he had to work his way up to working directly with the elephants. Getting tired of working around the elephants, but not with them, he asked his boss one day when he would get to work directly with the elephants.
“When you prove to me you’re smarter than the elephants,” was the reply.
Today, Jim is a veterinarian practicing in midcoast Maine, where he sees mainly domestic animals. However, Jim has an impressive background of working with elephants, having worked with them at the Bronx zoo and Wildlife Safari in Oregon.
The mission of Hope Elephants is twofold: To create a facility where retired and/or injured elephants can receive customized, state-of-the-art medical attention, and to educate the public about this fascinating animal.
The elephants' new home in Hope.When the Laurita brothers started the project about a year and a half ago, their plan was to start with Rosie and, as soon as another appropriate elephant was identified, add a second elephant. There was some controversy over the plan. The most commonly expressed concerns were over how elephants would adapt to the Maine climate and the appropriateness of removing such a social animal from the herd. Laurita anticipated the controversy, but was confident that, once people learned more about their mission, they would back him. He held public information meetings to explain the goals of Hope Elephants, and to reply to community concerns.
Laurita was right. The project caught people’s imagination, and many volunteered to help out. Fundraisers have been held; businesses have donated supplies and labor at discounted rates; engineers are working to build specialized equipment; a local physical therapist has agreed to provide physical therapy for the elephants; and Zenith High School in Camden is working with Hope Elephants on an educational project.
This is not the first time elephants have lived in temperate climates. There are elephant sanctuaries in Syracuse, New York, and in Canada, where the winters are more severe.
“In Syracuse, the elephants are outside 321 days a year,” Laurita said. “Here, they’ll probably be outside 317 days.”
Laurita said that it’s important that the elephants have a place to get out of the cold when they want to, but that overheating is a bigger problem.
The barn, designed by John Davee, of Maine Coast Construction in Camden, features an eight-inch deep sandpit of washed river sand over a cement base with radiant heating that will be easier on the elephants’ arthritic legs. In the center of the sand pit is a hill for Rosie to lean against to take weight off her injured leg.
Rosie was orphaned and bottle-raised. This led her to bonding well with humans, but less well with other herd members. As a result, she is ostracized by her herd. Her injury is the result of an attack by another elephant. She does, however, get on well with Opal, who also has problems with her legs, and has difficulty walking.
Rosie and Opal will receive customized therapy routines that will include hydro therapy, acupuncture, laser treatment, ultrasound, and an underwater treadmill. The 60-foot long underwater treadmill currently under design will be the world’s first such treadmill for elephants.
Rosie and Opal are already receiving nutritional therapy. Coastside Bio Resources, located in Stonington, Maine, is donating seaweed-based nutritional supplements for Rosie and Opal.
Along with medical issues, there is what Laurita calls “the boredom factor.” Elephants are highly intelligent animals, and need intellectual stimulation as much as a comfortable place to live. Outside in the paddock, volunteers have planted bamboo plants along the perimeter beyond the steel cable boarders. The plants will be far enough from the elephants that they will have to problem solve how to reach them for a nibble. Snacks will also be hidden in the overhanging trees, providing another puzzle for Rosie and Opal. The paddock also has a hill similar to the one inside the barn for the elephants to lean against, and a mud pool.
The Hope Elephant engineers have had a few intelligence tests thrown their way, too. For example:
“Sooner or later, they [large animals] all have trouble getting up,” Laurita said.
The traditional way of righting an elephant is to slip belts around it and lift it with a hoist, often resulting in broken ribs. A more benign solution in such cases is to put an inflatable pillow under the animal and get it raised to an angle so that the it can then right itself. The pillows used for horses are not large enough for a multi-ton elephant, and larger pillows have not been manufactured heretofore. Laurita approached the manufacturer of inflatable pillows for raising horses, and asked if they had ever thought of designing one for an elephant. The company agreed to take the project on, and produced the first inflatable pillow for righting an elephant. It’s bright red, and has a rubberized track on the bottom to provide traction. The company provided it at cost.
Along with caring for the elephants, Hope Elephants is an educational facility. Students from Zenith High School in Camden are working on a series of projects based around the facility. One project they’re working on is developing a curriculum elementary and middle schools in Camden and Rockport. The curriculum would use elephants as the starting point for lessons in biology, nutrition and health. The students have also gone into the community to educate the public about Hope Elephants.
For more information about Hope Elephants, visit hopeelephants.org.