Rosie is a 42-year-old retired (Asian) circus elephant currently living at Endangered Ark in Hugo, Oklahoma. Established and run by Carson & Barnes Circus for its own herd of elephants, it functions as a breeding facility and retirement home. It is not a sanctuary or a circus with performing animals.
“The purpose of it is to perpetuate the Asian elephant in the United States,” says Barbara Miller Byrd, a third generation owner of the Carson & Barns circus in a video. “It’s a dwindling species, endangered species and so we are trying our best here to keep them going.” Asian elephants are no longer allowed to be imported to the United States. According to Defenders of Wildlife, the wild Asian elephant population has been reduced from 100,000 in 1900 to 35,000-40,000 today.
The controversy about Rosie is the proposal by veterinarian Jim Laurita and his brother Tom who want to bring Rosie to what they describe as a rehab facility for elephants in their hometown of Hope, Maine. The Laurita brothers worked at the circus back in the 1970s when they were teenagers. Tom was a juggler and ring master and Jim worked with, trained and handled the elephants; this is where he met Rosie.
Rosie is living at Endangered Ark because of an injury that resulted in chronic arthritis. She was attacked by some of the other elephants in her herd. She doesn’t walk very much because of the pain, and even lying down and getting up are difficult tasks for her.
Justin McAnaney, Director of Operations for Hope Elephants — the non-profit organization set up by the Lauritas — told me in a phone interview that Dr. Laurita wants to bring Rosie to Maine “to extend her life, slow deterioration and make her more comfortable.” He also relayed to me that Rosie was imported to the U.S. as a youngster and has lived in captivity since then. Most likely her mother was shot and she was captured. He also told me that Rosie was bottle-fed and really identifies with humans, but not so much with other elephants.
What Hope Elephants wants to do is help Rosie with her medical issues by providing physical therapy using the modalities of ultrasound and hydrotherapy. They have plans to build a first of its kind water treadmill for elephants. The website sates their mission is “to care for retired and injured elephants and to educate about conservation.”
There are many animal advocates looking to help animals who experience abuse, cruelty and neglect. And many are signed up with various groups like IDA (In Defense of Animals), the many SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) organizations, IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare), HSUS (Humane Society of the United States) and numerous others to keep up to date on what is happening so they may step up and defend animals in need. Such was the case when I received an email from IDA elephant task force asking people to oppose bringing Rosie to Maine. Here you can read the letter comedian Lily Tomlin wrote to Maine Governor Paul LePage.
This story requires an open mind and a desire in seeking all the facts before forming an opinion. In researching Hope for Elephants and the campaigns to prevent Rosie from being transferred there, I discovered two very different beliefs and methods but with the same goal: to help Rosie have a better life.
On one side is Dr. Laurita and his non-profit organization Hope Elephants. I have no doubt Dr. Laurita wants to help Rosie have a better life by bringing her to Maine. He feels a bond with her from his circus days and has decided to retire from his small animal veterinary practice so he can devote himself full-time to Rosie and the rehab facility he has started building.
The other side: IDA and numerous other groups and individuals believe bringing Rosie to Maine is wrong for several reasons. Safety (human and elephant), the extended winter weather in Maine and the land space (one acre) and barn space (1,200 square feet) is too small for this 8,000 pound animal.
IDA recommends Rosie be transferred to one of the two existing elephant sanctuaries in the U.S.: the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee (TES) and PAWS (Performing Animal Welfare Society) in California. These facilities have many acres of land in which elephants can roam freely, there are established elephant herds for Rosie to join and they employ the protected contact method of handling when caring for the elephants.
Catherine Doyle, Elephant Campaign Director with IDA, told me in a phone interview that IDA consulted with more than one veterinarian who has experience with elephants. She said they all agree that the cold and extended winters in Maine will be detrimental for an elephant with arthritis like Rosie.
Free Contact Verses Protected Contact
AZA (Association of Zoos & Aquariums) identifies the difference between free contact and protected contact when working with elephants on page 27 of its AZA Standards for Elephant Management and Care:
a. Free Contact: The direct handling of an elephant when the keeper and elephant share the same unrestricted space. Neither the use of chains nor the posture of the elephant alters this definition.
b. Protected Contact: Handling of an elephant when the keeper and the elephant do not share the same unrestricted space. Typically in this system the keeper has contact with the elephant through a protective barrier of some type while the elephant is not spatially confined and is free to leave the work area at will. This includes confined contact, where the handling of an elephant through a protective barrier where the elephant is spatially confined, as in an Elephant Restraint Device (ERD).
Doyle is concerned that having Rosie in an open barn with no dividers is a serious safety issue for anyone who enters, and Hope Elephants is planning on including an educational component to their program. This would include having school children visit Rosie.
She also contends that the 1,200 square foot barn is too small for one elephant. And if they include another elephant and especially with an all open space design, it then becomes dangerous for both elephants who could potentially get into fights with one another in such a small enclosed space with nowhere to go.
Concerns Identified and Response
Doyle said Dr. Laurita “has good intentions, but lacks knowledge about proper conditions” for Rosie. One of her main concerns is the extended winter weather in Maine, which will cause Rosie to have to spend more days inside the barn. She also believes that the one acre of land for Rosie to roam is far too little. A wild elephant can roam as much as 30 miles per day. And she also feels a 1,200 square foot barn is too small for such a large animal.
Initially, Rosie will be the only elephant at Hope Elephants. Elephants in the wild live in herds of as little as eight or as many as 100. They are extremely social animals that need the companionship of other elephants for their mental health.
The Lauritas are planning on bringing one more handicapped elephant to Hope so Rosie is not all alone, but it’s unclear when that will happen. McAnaney told me that the building has already begun in Hope and they expect completion in mid-October with Rosie’s arrival by the end of that month.
Regarding the weather issue, McAnaney and the Lauritas believe their location should not be a problem, stating the weather in coastal Maine — where Hope is located — is moderate and not nearly as severe as in the northern inland section of the state. They also say the barn they are in the process of building will have radiant heat and sand flooring, so Rosie will not be standing on cement, which is difficult for arthritics. McAnaney also told me they are planning on having a large mound of sand to make it easier for Rosie to lie down and get up. Doyle agrees this is a good idea for Rosie.
Other Animal Advocates Speak Out
IDA is not the only animal advocacy group that opposes bringing Rosie to Hope Elephants. Numerous experts have sent letters to the Hope Elephants planning board voicing their opposition to Dr. Laurita’s plan. They include:
- Joyce H. Poole, PhD, Director, VoiceElephants.org
- Patty Finch, Executive Director, GFAS
- John Freeze, retired Animal Husbandry Supervisor for African Elephants at North Carolina Zoo
- Tim Harrison, Director, Outreach for Animals
- Scott Blais, Director of Operations/co-founder, Tennessee Elephant Sanctuary
Indeed, the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS) has said that it would not accredit the facility, based on animal welfare and human safety issues. In Patty Finch’s letter she states, “We have examined the site plan and the site plan review application submitted by Dr. Laurita. I can tell you with certainty that if these plans were carried out, GFAS would not be able to accredit the facility.”
In spite of these letters, the Hope Planning Board approved Dr. Laurita’s plan for Hope Elephants. Construction began about two weeks ago.
Life of a Circus Elephant
Elephants in circuses are not known to be treated with kindness. Undercover investigations at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus show video of abject abuse with the “training” tool known as a bullhook. Shaped like a fireplace poker with a sharp pointed end, bullhooks are seen being swung like a baseball bat and stabbed into soft spots on elephants — like behind and in ears or inside mouths or on the anus, the super sensitive parts of their epidermis — as a control mechanism.
The American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Animal Welfare Institute, the Fund for Animals, and the Animal Protection Institute filed a federal lawsuit against Ringling Bros., but it was dismissed by a federal judge in December 2009 for jurisdictional reasons. It never got the chance to be heard on the merits of the case: documented abuse.
Will a Bullhook Be Used on Rosie?
When queried as to the use of a bullhook, McAnaney told me, “Regarding bullhooks, Dr. Laurita will NOT be using one of these with Rosie . . . it is simply not necessary.” He also said Rosie will not be trained in the traditional sense. “His handling of her is going to be focused on delivery of the various physical therapy treatments and making sure she gets a suitable amount/type of exercise for her damaged limb,” McAnaney told me in an email.
Doyle is concerned that Dr. Laurita does not have enough current and up-to-date experience dealing with elephants. “I have to keep going back to the fact that Laurita’s experience with elephants in the past was in a circus and in zoos that used (and at least one zoo still does) free contact and bullhooks,” Doyle told me in an email. “There is no indication whatsoever that Laurita has ever learned another way of managing elephants.”
What You Can Do
Take your time and read as much as you can about Rosie, circus elephants, Hope Elephants in Maine, IDA and any other resource you can locate. Knowledge is power. Keep your mind open before deciding which approach is best for Rosie.
If you believe Rosie will thrive under the care of Dr. Laurita, volunteer at Hope Elephants. If you feel Rosie belongs in a sanctuary rather than at Hope Elephants work with IDA to further that goal. You can also sign the Care2 petition.
This is a tough one because both views have overlapping boundaries. I believe both IDA and Dr. Laurita want what is best for Rosie.
What do you think?