The remarkable life of Jim Laurita, a circus juggler turned veterinarian who founded an elephant sanctuary to care for his old friends, has been brought to a premature end by one of the animals he loved. The 56-year-old was found dead yesterday at the Hope Elephants sanctuary in Hope, Maine, and police say he appears to have been accidentally stepped on by a retired circus elephant after he fell to the ground, the Bangor Daily News reports. Laurita and his brother, Tom, met the elephants, Rosie and Opal, when they worked for the Carson & Barnes Circus and brought the pair—now in their 40s and suffering health problems—to the sanctuary in 2011.
"Jim's passion for all animals, but especially elephants, was boundless," the sanctuary wrote on its website. "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." Laurita planned to pioneer new treatments for elderly elephants and raised more than $100,000 to bring the sanctuary to Hope, a town of around 1,500 people. "There are some towns where people don't want chickens in their backyard, let alone an elephant," the town administrator tells the Portland Press Herald. "But Jim convinced all his neighbors. He had a vision and he was committed to making it happen." (In happier elephant news, circus elephants stranded after an accident in Siberia were saved from the cold—with the help of vodka.)