Seven miles northwest of Camden, Maine, lies a town called Hope. Some 1,600 people live among its hills and ponds; it’s a place where for years a local fundraiser has published a calendar of townspeople’s birthdays, so that nobody forgets to congratulate you when they see you at the general store or the post office, which in Hope is the same place. There are farms and orchards, a cobbler, a bagpipe maker, builders, carpenters, artists, and a center for home-schooling information: country Maine with a counterculture energy, a sense of people making their own way. Like so many small towns in Maine, its separate stories patch together into one community. But Hope today is like no other town in New England. In Hope, the children dream of elephants.
The story begins in a small Adirondack town in the 1960s. Schroon Lake, like Hope, held about 1,600 people, with roads that led to forest and water. Jim Laurita grew up there, one of eight children of a schoolteacher father. When he was 8 or 9, the circus came to town, and when it left, Jim and his brother, Tom, a year older, taught their dog tricks and learned to juggle. Tom joined a troupe of students touring the Northeast; eventually he left college to join first Circus Kirk, and then Carson & Barnes in Hugo, Oklahoma. In 1978 Jim followed. “To see the country,” he says today. The 25 elephants at Carson & Barnes worked all day, training, hauling enormous tents, pulling trucks out of mud. When Jim first tried to coax one of the elephants to move, the animal swatted him to the ground. “I was told, ‘You’re on the shovel until you’ve proved you can work with these animals,’” he recalls. “So that’s what I did. I proved I had an aptitude. And I ended up working with them in the ring.”
For the past 20 years, Jim Laurita has been the local veterinarian in Hope, caring for his neighbors’ pets from his Camden practice; he tells me his story while standing in a spanking-new barn beside the farmhouse where he lives with his wife and two sons. A light morning rain is falling. The barn opens to a fenced paddock, where an apple tree and piles of thick brush stand encircled by greenery. He points out that the barn floor is covered with soft sand, eight inches deep; it will be warmed by radiant heat. In the center a hillock rises, support to help an old elephant stand. And here his story circles back to that young man seeking adventure, and to Rosie, an Asian elephant, orphaned as a baby.
“Rosie was the cleverest one,” he remembers. “She was called ‘Little Boss,’ and wherever she went, the others followed. Rosie and Sis would signal you with their trunks to come over. Then they’d grab your hand and put it in their mouths to pet their tongues. You could lie down on them on cool days, and they just radiated heat. When Sis woke up, she’d lift her trunk and just feel all around you without moving.” He shakes his head: “Those kinds of things stick with you.”
His story wends its way through summers spent with circus elephants, and at the Bronx Zoo, Wildlife Safari in Oregon, and Cornell’s veterinary school; Jim once tranquilized elephants in India to prevent them from entering villages, where they would have been shot. He’d experienced a life with elephants that hardly anyone in Hope knew about. He’s 53 now, and when he speaks of elephants, he wants his listener to understand their extraordinary intelligence and how threatened they are—all in one breath.
“You’re not sure you’re smarter than they are,” Jim explains. He tells me about Obert, a male elephant at Carson & Barnes: “I was having a beer, and he kept shaking his trunk, grabbing for the can. It was empty, but he kept grabbing for it. So I gave it to him, and he crushed it and started digging up roots with it. He had formed a tool with a purpose. By the end of the week, a line of elephants were using that can to dig up roots.”
Then he rattles off grim statistics: the Asian herd decimated, with only 30,000 individuals remaining; more than 35,000 elephants killed each year in sub-Saharan Africa for their hides, meat, and ivory tusks. “They suffer so much trauma,” he says. “Elephants are like the Grand Canyon; they’re part of the biological heritage of the earth. We need to make sure that future generations can see them.”
Which brings us to a February evening in 2011. Jim and brother Tom, still best friends, both living in Hope, were taking a sauna and talking about a long-held dream to help injured circus elephants. “You do something when you’re young and it changes you,” Jim says, looking back. “We always wanted to do something for the elephants. It’s a long life of work for these guys. And we finally decided that if you wait until everything is perfect, well, you don’t do anything.” They had stayed in touch with the circus and had seen Rosie five years before, when she was 37, painfully arthritic: “We knew she’d be the first one to help.”
Tom, a successful businessman, knew how to turn ideas into action; Jim knew how to make sick animals well. More than a decade ago, another elephant had crushed Rosie against a truck. Her leg had never healed, and she was now hobbling, an old-timer growing older, separated from other elephants. If caring and knowledge and science could give Rosie a better life, the Lauritas wanted to try it. “High-end physical therapy,” Jim says. “The kind they do with racehorses: ultrasound, hydrotherapy, acupuncture, nutritional support. It’s never been tried.”
In early April 2011, they went to a pre-application meeting of the town planning board, a first step, to present a primer on the project. What they found instead were “people there from other towns,” Jim explains. “They went right to the politics. Because we’re on the wrong side of the PETA [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] movement … Anything circus is wrong. I walked out after that first meeting and said, ‘We’re going to have to do this in a different town.’”
But as word spread about the Lauritas’ improbable plan, two things happened. One, the opposition from away intensified. As weeks passed and planning-board decision time neared, animal-rights activists from around the country besieged town and state offices with e-mails and faxes. Rosie, they argued, shouldn’t be isolated from her herd or forced to endure Maine winters. Hope’s fire chief received a video showing rampaging elephants.
Here’s the second thing: Jim Laurita told his Hope neighbors about his coming of age in the company of elephants, and how he could help Rosie, how they could all help. And the calls began to come: What can we do? A former lawyer said he’d handle public relations, fundraising, regulatory compliance, and other operations. Andrew Stewart, who owns the general store—and is a former safari guide with a zoology degree—agreed to take an intensive elephant-management course. A physical therapist signed on. Others created a Web site to teach the public about elephants, including how they adapt in northern climes. A video showed Rosie walking, painfully, slowly. She became more than a project. She became real, an animal who needed them.
On a late-summer evening a year ago, more than 100 people crammed into the town hall; the planning board was about to decide yes or no. What members heard were stories of Dr. Jim caring for the town’s animals: how he took injured pets home with him so that they wouldn’t be alone; how once he had crawled on hands and knees so as not to disturb an old black Lab who could go no farther. The dog was outside, chewing on a bone, unaware of the vet, the softest way out. If Dr. Jim said he could help Rosie, then that was good enough. When the board announced its unanimous approval, the cheers sailed into the night.
Raising money for Rosie became this small community’s mission. “Hope Elephants” T-shirts and bracelets flew off the shelves of the general store. Townspeople recycled for Rosie, and they attended concerts for her. Hope became a town with no spare change; everything went to bring Rosie home. Donations reached $100,000, enough to borrow the remaining $200,000 for a heated barn and a double-steel fence. “To build it required a leap of faith,” Jim concedes. “We had to build before the state and federal approvals.” The barn was completed in three months, and at Christmastime, lights decorated its door, forming the outline of an elephant. Every day people asked Andrew at the store, “When will Rosie come?”
Money could build a barn, but it couldn’t buy patience. “Maine is nothing if not cautious,” Jim Laurita smiles. Federal inspectors came three times from New Mexico, filled with questions and suggestions, but Jim stayed calm. “Whatever time it takes is what it takes,” he said. “If it were easy, everyone would have an elephant.” During the delay the circus offered a companion, Opal, a 40-year-old female, also hurt. “We always wanted to have two,” Jim says. In May 2012, both federal and state approvals came through.
One day early this September, a large truck from Oklahoma will turn left at the Hope General Store and head down Hatchet Mountain Road. It will stop at the new barn and back up to the paddock, and Jim Laurita will lead Rosie and Opal into their acre of yard. Apples will hang from the trees; bags of alfalfa will be strung from boughs like piñatas. More food will be hidden in piles of brush, so that Rosie and Opal can play and browse at the same time. After a few weeks, children and adults will come to the viewing area and watch, close enough to see elephants blink.
“That can change a life,” Jim Laurita says. “When you see them up close, it’s a different experience.” He hopes one day that this will be a center for learning about elephants, about the need to save them, like the great whales. “They were endangered,” he notes, “and through awareness they’ve come back.”
Each day Rosie and Opal will be treated for their injuries and eat food from local farms. Volunteers will lead them on miles of walks, around and around the paddock. Hope will settle into being the town where children grow up listening to the call of elephants. And maybe, just maybe, it will be where elephants dream of Hope.
To find out more about Hope Elephants, including how to donate to the project, go to: hopeelephants.org