Asian elephants Rosie and Opal were munching on hay and enjoying a drink of well water after spending the morning grazing in their 1-acre outdoor paddock on Hatchet Mountain Road Oct. 24.

The elephants, who are 43- and 41-years-old respectively, arrived at Hope Elephants Oct. 20, after a year-and-a-half of planning by veterinarian Dr. Jim Laurita, his brother Tom Laurita and several other volunteers involved with the project.

Laurita's passion for elephants first began when he worked off and on for Carson & Barnes Circus, based in Hugo, Okla. while attending college in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The Laurita brothers had a juggling act together in the circus and eventually Tom became the ringmaster and Jim the elephant handler. Rosie and Opal are two of the elephants of the herd of 26 that Laurita worked with at that time.

About eight or 10 years ago, Laurita said he and Tom began talking about what they could do to help these elephants that have retired from the circus and have medical needs.

In 2011, the brothers formed Hope Elephants, a nonprofit with two purposes: to care for elephants who have medical needs by employing veterinary therapeutic treatments and to serve as an educational platform for the issues of wildlife conservation using the example of elephants.

"This is an opportunity to see what happens if we treat an elephant like a high-end race horse or a human," he said, noting that the goal is to improve the elephants' quality of life.

Rosie has developed a nerve paralysis and arthritis problems in one of her legs and, Laurita said, Opal's medical needs are not quite pinpointed, but she also suffers from lameness. Veterinarian Dr. Margo Protheroe was expected to pay a visit to do x-rays on Opal to see what is going on.

"Some say it's hard to tell when elephants are happy, but these guys are happy," Jim Laurita said as he stood inside the specially-designed barn at Hope Elephants.

Laurita said the two have settled in nicely and are getting acquainted with their surroundings. He said he's not sure why he thought it would take them some time to get used to things since these elephants have traveled with the circus for 40 years and are accustomed to being in various locations.

The day after their arrival in Hope, the elephants had been outside where Opal had been tearing twigs from the apple trees and Rosie had been resting on a mound of sand.

"She [Opal] was exploring the paddock, having a grand old time," Laurita said.

The piles of sand, one outside and another in the barn, help the elephants relax and have ease getting up. The floor inside the barn includes radiant heat and is covered in about 8 inches of sand to help ease the elephants' arthritis. Most captive settings are concrete, he said.

When Laurita checked on them at 5 a.m. Oct. 21, the two were lying on the sand pile sound asleep, he said. He has slept in the barn on a cot for a couple of nights since their arrival. In general, Laurita said, elephants need only about three hours of sleep per day and generally sleep during the night hours. However, he said, Rosie has been snoozing quite a bit more than that since her arrival at Hope Elephants.

"She's retired," he joked.

Rosie, who weights 7,200 pounds, and Opal, weighing in at 7,500 pounds, are slowly being introduced to a brand new diet.

Coast Side Bio Resources, located in Stonington, has donated a chondroitin supplement called EquuSea for the rest of Rosie and Opal's lives. Laurita said Opal's wrist has already started to loosen up since she started taking the product.

They also will each be fed three bales of hay from Aldermere Farms each day, 10 pounds of fruits and vegetables each, and eventually 10 pounds of "Purina Elephant Chow," which Laurita said is a large pelleted feed.

"Now we are seeing their personality come out. They are sweet, inquisitive and playful," he said. "Rosie is so sweet, but I had forgotten how sweet Opal is."

Laurita said when he worked with them in the circus, the elephants were divided into sub-herds and so he has spent more time with Rosie.

Rosie was orphaned and brought to the United States in 1970. Rosie was bottle-fed as a baby by human handlers and as a result has had difficulty interacting with other elephants. She performed in the circus most of her life before sustaining the injury to her forearm, according to the Hope Elephants newsletter. Opal also came to America about the same time as Rosie and has spent most of her life in the circus before being retired due to the lameness. Despite Rosie's fondness for humans, the two have been getting along well, Laurita said.

The next project for Hope Elephants is to construct an education and visitors center to further the mission of educating about wildlife conservation. There are also plans to build an outside viewing deck so people can see the elephants as they roam the outdoor paddock. Hope Elephants also plans to open a store in downtown Camden where people can buy Hope Elephants T-shirts, hats, dog bandannas and other merchandise as well as sign-up to take a tour. The store is expected to be open for the holiday season.

Laurita is looking forward to working with students and local schools have already begun to work with Hope Elephants. At Lincolnville school, there is a six-week program for fourth- to sixth-graders and they have been writing about elephants and also plan to do some artwork based around elephants. The conclusion of the program includes a visit to the Hope facility. Hope school is also working with the program.

On the medical side, local veterinarians Stacey Contakos of Camden Hospital for Animals, where Laurita also works, and Victor Steinglass of Rockport will serve as backup veterinary care for the elephants. Both elephants will be receiving laser therapy to acupuncture points by Lee Herzig, a holistic veterinarian in Belfast.

Hope Elephants has two paid employees, Neil Delehey of Camden and Andrew Stewart of Hope. The two completed a course related to the care of elephants in West Virginia through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which is the governing body of zoos.

Tours are going to be by appointment only and can be set up through Hope Elephants website at hopeelephants.org.

Progress may be followed through the organization’s Facebook page at facebook.com/hopeelephants, which can be viewed without signing into the social network.

Courier Publications Copy Editor Kim Lincoln can be reached at 236-8511 or by email at klincoln@courierpublicationsllc.com.

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