An autopsy of Dr. Jim Laurita has determined his cause of death to be asphyxiation after an elephant stepped on him, according Maine Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Mark Flomenbaum.

Laurita, the founder and passionate advocate behind Hope Elephants, was found lying on the floor inside the elephant barn Sept. 9 just after 7 a.m. and pronounced dead by paramedics. For an unknown reason, while routinely tending to the elephants, Laurita had fallen in the corral and struck his head on the cement floor, according to police.

"The investigation shows that the injuries are consistent, while Dr. Laurita was on the ground from a fall, that one of the elephants accidentally stepped on Dr. Laurita causing internal injuries with multiple fractures and ultimately causing asphyxia," a press release from Knox County Sheriff's Office states. Flomenbaum has declared this an accidental death.

On its website and Facebook page, staff posted a public message:

"Hope Elephants is deeply saddened by the loss of our founder, Dr. Jim Laurita.

"Jim’s passion for all animals, but especially elephants, was boundless. It was Jim’s ability to share that passion with all around him that not only helped to make our organization a reality, but also enriched and enhanced the lives of all those who had a chance to know Jim. It was through education that Jim passed on his passion and the importance of wildlife conservation.

"Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Laurita family. We ask that you respect their privacy during this difficult time. We are thankful for your support."

The Hope Elephants facility is located on Hatchet Mountain Road in Hope and opened to the public following the two elephants' arrival in 2012.

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. Laurita and his brother Tom had a juggling act together in the circus and eventually Tom became the ringmaster and Jim the elephant handler. Rosie and Opal, who now reside at Hope Elephants, are two of the elephants of the herd of 26 that Laurita worked with at that time.

While studying for the Medical College Admissions Test, Laurita, who is originally from a small town in upstate New York called Schroon Lake, worked as an assistant elephant trainer for three Asian elephants at the Bronx Zoo. There he gave rides on the elephants and also ran educational programs.

After that, in 1983, Laurita was the head elephant trainer at the Wildlife Safari in Winston, Ore. He managed all aspects of the care and training for seven African elephants.

In 1985, Laurita began veterinary school at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and received his doctor of veterinary medicine degree in 1989.

For an independent study during veterinary school, Laurita went to southern India and studied captive elephants in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, India. He studied all aspects of elephant management as practiced in the teak forest.

After school, Laurita came to Midcoast Maine and did not know how long he would stay, but met his wife, who is local, and ended up staying. He has worked (and was previously part owner) at the Camden Hospital for Animals since 1990.

It was there he began kicking around the idea of working with elephants again. About eight or 10 years ago, he and his brother began talking about what they could do to help 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 that 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.

While there was some initial concern about the effect of Maine's cold winters on the animals, area residents soon jumped on board with establishment of the facility, which has since become nationally-known.

The elephants, which are 43 and 41 years old respectively, arrived at Hope Elephants Oct. 20, 2012, after a year and a half of planning by the Lauritas and several other volunteers involved with the project.

The barn features about 1,200 feet of space for the two elephants; the floor is covered in sand to help ease Rosie's arthritis, Laurita previously said. In the center of the area, there is a sand pile that will allow the elephants to relax and ease getting up.

The barn has radiant heat in the floors and Rosie and Opal also help heat the facility — elephant manure is pumped back into the building as fuel for the main heat source. To one side of the pen, there is an area for washing the elephants and also where different modalities are used to ease the arthritis.

Courier Publications' staff Stephanie Grinnell and Kim Lincoln contributed to this story.

To share your story about Dr. Jim for a piece remembering him in next week's Camden Herald, click here.