HUGO, OKLAHOMA — Saturday night, Sept. 13, Rosie and Opal left Hope, Maine, in a big truck and headed for the southwest corner of Oklahoma. Eighteen hundred miles later, they arrived, and on Sept. 16, word came from Hugo that the two elephants are settling comfortably back into their former home, and reacquainting themselves with the eight other elephants already living there.
“When they unloaded, the herd began communicating with Rosie and Opal, talking — trumpeting — and making noises,” said Arlinda Copeland, director of the nonprofit Endangered Ark Foundation, in a Wednesday night phone conversation. “Rosie has a fresh pile of sand she enjoys, and she is very comfortable.”
Copeland and others from the Ark nonprofit were in Hope last June, observing Jim Laurita as he rehabilitated Rosie, his old friend from his days in the circus. The Endangered Ark contingent then took what they learned back to Hugo to help the retired circus elephants living there — “to implement Jim’s practices in Hugo,” said Copeland.
Through the partnership with Hope Elephants and the medical records, notes on treatments and individual elephant behaviors provided, the Ark was quickly able to prepare for Rosie and Opal’s arrival, the organization said.
No one could imagine the tragedy last week when Jim Laurita died after falling in the corral where the two elephants lived. But there were plans in place should something happen to him. The nonprofit he and his brother established in 2011 — Hope Elephants — has a board of directors, and they quickly decided that it was in the elephants’ best interest to return to the Oklahoma ranch where they had been living before they moved to Maine in 2012.
“As planned, Rosie and Opal have left Hope to return to the elephant retirement ranch run by the Endangered Ark Foundation from which they came,” came word on Monday, Sept. 14, from Hope Elephants spokesman Andrew Stewart.
The mission of the Endangered Ark Foundation (facebook.com) is: “to preserve the extremely endangered Asian elephant by providing an intense passion and massive care needed to save and love such a bigger than life spirit. While also, expanding the public education and magnifying a child eye of the conservation of the endangered Asian Elephant.”
The foundation has existed since 1993 and owns Rosie and Opal, both retired circus elephants. Jim Laurita was once an elephant trainer, treating and caring for elephants in India, at the Bronx Zoo, the Wildlife Safari in Oregon and at Cornell’s veterinary school. His connection to Rosie goes back more than 30 years to when he worked for the circus, which Rosie and Opal called home for most of their lives.
The foundation was established by D. R. and Isla Miller, owners of the Carson and Barnes Circus. The circus still exists, and the Ark is where the Asian elephants go for retirement, and are also bred, according to published reports.
Tax records from 2012 state that the Ark is a nonprofit whose mission is “endangered animals.”; Its revenues in 2012, according to the records, were $31,032, with $1,951 in donations and $49,050 in program revenue that year. Expenses were $87,255 that year.
Copeland said the organization is exploring the establishment of a separate fund for Rosie and Opal.
“This foundation has owned the girls since before and throughout our involvement with them and so this was the only place to which they could return,” said Stewart, in an announcement posted on the Facebook page of Hope Elephants on Sept. 16. “Moreover, Jim always spoke highly of the care retired elephants receive there and that, in the event something were to happen to him, Rosie and Opal were to be returned there while we re-evaluate our plans for the future. Therefore, we are not saying goodbye to them but continuing, as always, our commitment to assuring they receive the best possible care.
“The exact nature of our ongoing relationship with the girls, and where they will ultimately live, will be determined by a thoughtful assessment of the who, how, what and where questions regarding the future of Hope Elephants which we, as a community, need to consider in the coming months.
“As we move beyond the overwhelming shock and mourning with which we have all been wrestling since last Tuesday, we are committed to honoring Jim's vision as well as that of the countless supporters who have made Hope Elephants the fabulous success it has become. In the meantime, you will be able to see photos of our girls on the Hope Elephants website as they continue to receive the therapies Jim pioneered and receive the kind of caring they have come to enjoy while with us.
“With regard to the girls’ departure, due to the large number of supporters and friends of Hope Elephants, it would have been logistically impossible to have arranged public visits while ensuring that Rosie, Opal and the Laurita family were allowed calm and peace during such a traumatic time. We appreciate your understanding that the decision was made in the best interests of all of them. Together, we will move forward into the light and warmth of each new day, continuing to fulfill the mission of Hope Elephants by evolving and redefining it so that we can assure Jim Laurita's legacy.”
The Endangered Ark Foundation issued its own statement following last week’s tragedy: “It was our hope (and still is) to work closely with Hope Elephants to continue the work Jim was doing in the care and therapeutic treatments for the girls, as well as in the field. Our close friendship and trust we had in Jim is a fundamental reason we collaborated with Hope Elephants and will continue to pursue his vision. It is unfortunate the tragedy of his passing has brought us to where we are today.”
board of Endangered Ark Foundation also stated: “The loss of Jim will weigh heavily on all our hearts, but we will honor his memory by taking excellent care of ‘the girls’, continuing the innovative treatments he was developing for their particular medical needs and by utilizing his format in promoting preservation, education and wildlife conservation to keep all aware of the endangered Asian elephants.”
In Hugo this week, Rosie and Opal were first assessed by their veterinarian and the Ark reported that they were doing well: “The elephants were not only greeted with a healthy snack of fruits and vegetables donated by the local Walmart in Hugo, but also by beloved family members in the herd.”
Opal’s friend, Margaret, another elephant living on the Hugo ranch, was happy that Opal returned to the southwest.
According to Copeland, the elephants rotate among the corrals, and are placed with “whom they get along with.”
The weather in Hugo is “beautiful,” said Copeland, “in the 70s and 80s, with a nice breeze.”
The Ark wants to remain in concert with the goals of Hope Elephants, and Copeland said her organization is “in support of possibilities of bringing them [Rosie and Opal] back” to Maine.
As for Rosie and Opal, they are fine, she reported. They are in a familiar place, with elephants they know.
“Once in the family, always in the family,” she said.
Editorial Director Lynda Clancy can be reached at email@example.com; 207-706-6657