HUGO, OK — Rosie and Opal lumbered slowly through the prairie grass Dec. 3, under a cold Oklahoma mist. At the fence, Henry Laurita was waiting, and when they arrived, he placed a gentle hand on Opal's shoulder. She turned her gaze into his eyes. 'Nice to see you, Henry,' she seemed to nod, adding, 'got any treats?' Rosie stood nearby, raising her trunk toward his heart in that slow regal gesture that elephants make when greeting friends.
Henry, whose spirit is as quiet and strong as these elephants, simply cupped the end of her trunk in his hands in hello. Then, he pulled out the carrots.
It had been two months since Henry had talked to Rosie and Opal, the ones his father, Jim, called simply, “the Girls.”
With winter's approach, the leaves in Hugo were gone from the trees, but in this spot near the Texas and Arkansas borders, the grass was greening despite a five-year drought, and birds were singing. In a nearby pasture, ponies grazed, sometimes rearing and bucking with each other.
Henry had arrived the night before, riding shotgun for 1,800 miles from Hope, with Andrew Stewart in the driver's seat of the Dodge Caravan. They had left Maine at 5:30 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 30, driving first to Baltimore, then to Nashville and finally arriving in Oklahoma Dec. 2.
In the back, plastic bins filled with medicines, short wave diathermy equipment (radio waves — the same treatment humans receive with physical therapy to relax the deeper muscles), acupuncture needles, balls, even the suntan lotion for Rosie’s trunk, all of it representing Jim Laurita's rehabilitative work with retired circus elephants.
It was a sweet reunion taking place at the Endangered Ark Foundation.
“I think Rosie has put on some weight,” said Andrew.
“Yes,” said Henry, smiling.
The trip was necessary for practical reasons, to take the supplies where they were needed most.
But it was also a trip loaded with intent and emotion, the cementing of a friendship between Hope Elephants and the Endangered Ark Foundation, the acknowledgement that Jim’s legacy was to continue, and the strengthening of a relationship between two distance communities: Midcoast Maine with the community of Hugo, Ok., where ranches intersperse with hunting and fishing camps. Where the median household income in 2012 was $21,360 and the economic issues of rural America are as sharp and hard as they are in many parts of Maine.
And Hugo has 25 elephants, 10 of them retired from the circus. There, the nonprofit is working now to raise funds to care for them.
“Who wouldn’t be drawn to elephants,” asked Kristin Parra, an Endangered Ark board member, and a mother of three boys. Descended from a circus family, she grew up with the elephants, including Rosie.
“They are magnificent creatures all the way around.”
Rosie and Opal had abruptly returned to Hugo in mid-September after two years of living in Maine, but not before building a wave of community support for their own well-being. Mention their names anywhere, and most likely people will smile, and then wonder, “are they alright?”
When Jim Laurita died tragically Sept. 9, there was no one in the state to carry his work forward. For several years, he had eased slowly away from his longtime local vet practice at Camden Hospital for Animals and was devoting his career to advancing elephant therapies. That entailed caring for Rosie and Opal round the clock, and teaching school children and the general public about the global plight and care of elephants.
Autumn 2014 had looked promising for Hope Elephants, with various Midcoast schools lining up curriculum about the pachyderms.
Jim had taught his son, Henry, some of the ropes, and Henry had even innovated the radio wave equipment for Jim before heading off to Colgate for the fall semester. There were a few other handlers at Hope Elephants, but no one knew the routine as much as Jim. He also knew Rosie and Opal from his days in the circus as their handler, in the 1970s, when he was the age of Henry.
For years — through his veterinarian training, and his time as a trainer, treating and caring for elephants in India, at the Bronx Zoo, the Wildlife Safari in Oregon and at Cornell’s veterinary school, and through his career in Camden — his thoughts had returned to Rosie.
The day finally came when he and his brother, Tom, established the nonprofit Hope Elephants solicited the support of the community, and brought Rosie and Opal to Maine, the intent being to develop therapeutic medicine for aging elephants.
They leased the two elephants from Endangered Ark Foundation, which has its own mission to move older circus elephants into retirement, and to help preserve the population of Asian elephants, now threatened with extinction.
The foundation has existed since 1993, established by D. R. and Isla Miller, owners of the Hugo-based Carson and Barnes Circus. Its mission: “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's eye of the conservation of the endangered Asian Elephant.”
To Kristin, leasing Rosie and Opal to Hope Elephants was solely due to Jim’s passion and determination to develop and refine therapies.
“There are so few elephant specialists in the world, and Endangered Ark cares deeply for its elephants,” she said, sitting at her desk in Hugo. “This was a chance for elephants to benefit, in general. We were excited to be a part of that.”
She had flown up from Oklahoma for Jim's funeral in September, and witnessed the outpouring of love and support for him, and by extension, for Rosie and Opal.
“We knew Jim and our connection with him was long established,” she said. “That’s the only reason we let them go to Maine. We get people calling constantly asking to buy or lease our elephants. We say no.”
Elephants, their protection and their care in the U.S. is a touchy subject, and raises heated debates in the cyber world and across kitchen tables. It is a global conversation, as efforts to stop the slaughter of elephants in Africa, and to some extent in Asia, for their tusks increases (it is estimated that an elephant dies somewhere every 15 minutes for their ivory), and about stewardship of the animals that have already been imported to Europe and and the Americas.
As for Asian elephants, their worldwide population currently hovers at 30,000 to 40,000, with some predicting their extinction by 2030. There are 500 known elephants in the U.S., and few experts, veterinarians, and facilities to take care of them.
That is a responsibility that carries much weight, something that is not lost at Endangered Ark.
And through Rosie and Opal, the small town of Hope became a central part of the debate. The discussion became tangible, as the broader community threw their support — financial and emotional — behind Hope Elephants. Following Jim's death, the board of the young nonprofit was faced with somber talks about its own future.
But most immediately, the goal for Hope Elephants was to transfer knowledge and equipment to Hugo, and to see “the Girls.” On a cold, icy morning, Andrew pointed the GPS southwest. Tagging behind them, by air, were photographer Amy Wilton, of Hope, and PenBayPilot.com, to chronicle the trip.
How are Rosie and Opal?
According to Andrew and Henry, they are doing fine. They are back in a place they know as home, where they grew up, and with familiar elephants. The Girls are with their herd.
Several staff members have known Rosie and Opal for the past 20 to 30 years, and for the past seven years, exchanged ideas about best practices with Jim.
Both Rosie and Opal arrived in the U.S. as two-year-old orphans from Asia, most likely Thailand, in the late 1970s. They are now 44 and 42 respectively, retired from working their lives in the same circus. In the life of elephants, they are moving into the twilight years.
With them are their handlers.
Ben, in his early 40s, is an elephant trainer, who has known Rosie and Opal for 20 years. And there is Adam, a recent hire who has been at the facility for just one week. He was hired by the foundation specifically to work with Rosie and Opal.
He sleeps in a room in the barn, and gets up every few hours to see if the elephants are alright.
Adam grew up outside of Lincoln, Nebraska, on his father’s cattle ranch, but said, “I have always wanted to work with elephants, ever since I was a little kid.”
He left the ranch for training, which included time in Africa working with elephants.
Kristin grew up with the elephants and as the granddaughter of D.R. Miller, her focus is on ensuring that the Ark moves into its next phase. She is cultivating relationships with Oklahoma State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, both of which have visited Endangered Ark to conduct their own elephant veterinary research. The most recent research involves how elephants see.
While Henry was in Hugo, he showed Adam and Ben how to do acupuncture, as well as use of the short wave diathermy on Rosie and Opal, both who sustained leg injuries years ago. Rosie’s was the result of being pinned against a truck by another elephant, and she has a distinctive gate, her left leg throwing to the side as she walks.
Her trunk is also partially paralyzed, a condition that can afflict elephants for a range of reasons, and she receives acupuncture for that, as well.
Jim Laurita was a proponent of feeding glucosamine, used both in humans and pets, to help mitigate arthritis. Glucosamine is a natural chemical compound in the body and it keeps the joint cartilage lubricated, but its levels decrease with age.
The hydro therapy Jim had initiated three times a week for both Rosie and Opal had already been under way in Oklahoma, the tubs transferred down when the two returned to Hugo in September.
“I was amazed at how Rosie stepped right into it,” said Andrew. “She had obviously been getting the treatment.”
An air bag also traveled down to Oklahoma, a device to be used in the emergency that one of the elephants went down and could not stand back up. That is a dangerous situation, and elephants can die quickly if they are prone too long. They can lie down to sleep, but it is not for long, and they rise to get their circulation going.
Some zoos have contracts with construction companies, who use big equipment to raise elephants if they cannot get back up.
At the barn in Hope, a winch on the wall was installed for such a likelihood, and Jim devised an inflatable air bag that could be positioned under an elephant’s side to raise her back up onto her feet. Andrew and Henry took that, as well as the compressor, to Hugo.
“Their feet are in really good shape,” said Andrew, issuing an observation not small in importance.
Problems with elephant feet can escalate to life threatening conditions, if the cuticles crack and infections set in.
At Endangered Ark
The Hugo facility sits on 200 acres of fields and woods on a lot just on the edge of a small, quiet town almost three hours north of Dallas, and three hours south of Tulsa. Temperatures can swing between extremes.
For three days in early December, it was at first cold enough for a winter jacket, in the 30s; but then a warm front moved in, T-shirt weather.
The central paddocks are clustered around three barns, two barns specifically for two male elephants. The third barn is for the females and the two young elephants, Hugo, a small three-year-old, and another eight-year-old. At night, they move into the large barn, with piles of sand.
The sand is donated by a local concrete company, Rustin Concrete. Just up the road is a super Walmart, which donates its unsold produce — vegetables and fruit — three times a week.
Out back are three small pastures, measuring one to two acres in size, and enclosed by electric fencing. The female elephants walk down to the pastures through a fenced alleyway, past the horses.
In the iron-fenced paddocks closer to the barn, big piles of sand lie in the middle, and the elephants take turns rolling in them. Their backs carry a blanket of amber sand throughout the day.
When you drive by, they watch you, and if a human, such as Kristin, calls to them, some will trumpet back. If it is close to feeding time, they will weave their bodies, swaying. This is referred to as an anticipatory response.
At other times, the swaying can be a comforting response; it is believed that physiologically, levels of the hormone cortisol levels are being lowered, resulting in a calming of the body’s immune response.
Swaying in elephants can be regarded as a self-comforting action, as a release from boredom, and as a response to the pending arrival of treats.
Rosie would sway in the barn at Hope Elephants, said Andrew, if her foot was in the hydro-therapy tub too long for her own comfort.
“She wanted to be done,” he said. “We learn from the animals.”
There, too, when feeding time approached, Opal would go forage, and then look at the bar and start rocking, knowing mealtime was on the horizon. And if there were extended conversations under way, Rosie might start swaying, as if to say, ‘stop talking and give me my treat,’ said one of her former handlers in Hope.
This is also why zoos, and safari parks such as Blair Drummond in Scotland, now are implementing randomizing daily schedules, shaking up the routine of feeding and other predictable events.
And then there are environmental enrichment practices that encompass a range of activities to stimulate the intellect. For animals, including elephants, that have worked much of their lives, enrichment is core to their wellbeing.
It is why there are balls and logs and buckets in paddocks at Endangered Ark, and why the elephants take turns rotating through the lower pastures.
This winter, Endangered Ark is building a new barn with five stalls. Plans are partially modeled on Jim Laurita’s barn design in Hope, where alleys divide the stalls and people can walk along.
The flooring of the new barn will consist of sand, not cement. That is a distinctive design that Jim had incorporated in the Hope barn.
Endangered Ark also plans to expand pastures deeper into the 200 acres, and strengthen outreach to schools and the public, much in the way that Hope Elephants was working.
“We want people to come and learn, and love our elephants,” said Kristin.
For Hope Elephants, it is an introspective time. Its board has had long discussions about the organization’s future, and what its mission may be. Last week, Tom Laurita spent six hours talking with Kristen and Arlinda Copeland, the director of Endangered Ark who has been hired to cultivate that organization’s position, as well as raise funds. They met in Oklahoma City to hash out collaborations.
“Hope Elephants wants to continue our ongoing relationship with Endangered Ark, with the exchange of knowledge,” said Andrew.
“It is an opportunity to promote the synergy of all the work in the field,” said Arlinda Copeland, director of the Endangered Ark nonprofit. “The whole bigger picture is to make a difference in the future of elephants around the world. We have the opportunity to create more advocates and ambassadors.”
Editorial Director Lynda Clancy can be reached at email@example.com; 207-706-6657