How Two Elephants Are Bringing Hope To Elephants Worldwide

Rosie and Opal aren’t just retired circus elephants: They’re beacons of hope for their endangered species. Hope Elephants, located in aptly named Hope, Maine, is a nonprofit sanctuary devoted to the well-being and conservation of elephants worldwide.

1. This is Opal (left) and Rosie (right), the elephants of Hope, Maine.

At 42 and 44, respectively, the two are retired circus elephants from the Carson & Barnes Circus. A decade ago, they were brought to the Endangered Ark Elephant Facility in Hugo, Okla., a “retirement home” for circus elephants.

2. They were adopted in October 2012 by Dr. Jim Laurita, their former elephant handler, and taken to Maine to get the specific care they needed.

Laurita (with Rosie to his left and Opal to his far right in the first photograph) joined the circus with his brother in 1977 as a juggling act. Soon after, Laurita became their caretaker and eventually left the circus to work at the Bronx Zoo in 1983 and the Wildlife Safari in Winston, Ore., in 1988. He then studied elephant care in Kerala, India, as he completed his degree in veterinary care in 1989 from Cornell University. Years later, he decided to sell his thriving veterinary practice to take care of his long-lost friends.

3. When Rosie first saw Laurita for the first time in years, she ran to him and put his hand in her mouth, a sign of affection among elephants.

As heartwarming as this seemed, it was actually a problematic behavior as it showed her reliance on humans rather than other elephants. Rosie, an orphaned elephant who was bottle-fed by humans, didn’t learn the elephant language properly and had a difficult time socializing in the circus. While Rosie would be happy with tons of human affection, Laurita and the others have had to pull back so Rosie could learn to bond with Opal; socializing with other elephants is essential to an elephant’s well-being and happiness.

4. Now, Rosie turns to Opal for comfort and vice versa.

Despite being bullied throughout her life, Rosie is now the matriarch of the two. She’s a fair leader though, only taking Opal’s hay so she can distribute to her when Opal “asks nicely.”

5. The two have very distinct and complementary personalities: Opal is more impish and Rosie is a sweetheart to the core.

6. They are like sisters: They may annoy each other from time to time, but they undeniably love and comfort each other.

7. Opal and Rosie do tons of physical therapy to help with shoulder injuries and nerve damage. This is just as important as socializing.

Rosie has nerve damage in her trunk, a condition that effects both captive and wild elephants in old age. With every tour group that comes in, Dr. Laurita does point exercises with them. They’ve learned through click training and positive reinforcement to point, thereby stretching their muscles, joints, and trunks.

8. The exercises, combined with cutting-edge treatments such as acupuncture, short-wave diathermy, hydrotherapy, and nutritional supplements, have helped both girls improve their range of motion and decrease the pain to their joints.

Dr. Laurita gives Rosie her acupuncture treatment. The hardest placement was near her mouth, but as soon as she allowed one side, she immediately allowed him to put the treatment on the other.

Rosie has had the most dramatic improvement: She’s “gained muscle mass through our exercise and nutritional programs, she even became a little chubby and is now slowly losing weight to her ideal size.” A huge part of her success is that her trunk function is improving: She used to only be able to swing her trunk to her left and now she can swing it to her right and has developed her own system of feeding herself where she sways and throws it up in her mouth. While she may not get her full trunk function in her lifetime, the improvements have given her the confidence she was sorely lacking throughout her life.

Here, Dr. Laurita makes sure Rosie’s foot bath is perfect to get her feet feeling better.

Dr. Laurita puts SPF 60 on Opal and Rosie, since they are unable to fully cover themselves in the dirt that would protect them from the sun. In addition, if the temperatures are hot, he hoses them off so they can keep cool.

12. All of this goes on while tours watch the elephants and learn from the staff of knowledgable interns.

13. They engage with students, explaining the emotional depth of elephants as well as their complex language ability.

Here Tyler, an MIT student and one of the interns, shows a replica of an elephant foot to explain how the foot is structured and the way it’s a means of communication between elephants. Elephants can communicate with one another through the vibrations from their footsteps and can even identify if they know the elephant behind the vibrations.

They have evolved beyond their basic needs so they’ve become complex, they are really animals who understand society, love, things that are beyond even your dog.

Via Dr. Laurita

15. “The one rule is that everyone who has a question has to ask it,” Laurita told a tour group filled with tons of curious children.

16. At least once every tour, someone asks, “How do they do in the winters in Maine?”

The answer: very well! Andrew Stewart, the director of Hope Elephants, recounted the first time a major snow storm hit, leaving about 1 foot of snow. “We made this nice plowed pathway and we sanded it so they could go out and the wind picked up, so Laurita decided to bring them in. And he called Opal over, and she started to come in, and as soon as he turned his back she charged off into the snow and she was flinging snow around. It took her 45 minutes, about seven times before she came back in.” As for the barn itself, the sand floor is heated to help with their joint pain year-round.

17. The tour goes into Rosie and Opal’s story and care but it also focuses on the plight of African and Asian elephants worldwide.

“When you come here … you are pretty much required to have an education about the conservation aspect of it. We don’t want to just be a place where it’s ‘Oh, well that was cool’ in five minutes and then they move on,” said Stewart. The former Botswana safari guide with a zoology degree was working at the Hope general store when Dr. Laurita approached him about the facility nearly a decade ago.

We knew we could successfully take care of these two and make them feel better. But that’s just part of what we want to do. A major part of what we want to do is, these guys are being systematically driven to extinction and that’s the real problem with the elephants. That they are, in Asia and Africa, being exterminated and so … we use these guys as kind of ambassadors, let them speak through us, try to help their wild compatriots.

Via Dr. Laurita

19. There are only 300,000 to 400,000 African elephants left, with 37,000 elephants being poached a year.

Stewart cites this as a “conservative estimate,” and that “basic math tells you they will be gone at current rates.”

20. Asian elephants are even more critically endangered: There are only 30,000 left, meaning “there are more people in Fenway watching the Red Sox in an evening than there are Asian elephants on the planet,” Stewart said.

21. The main threats to Asian elephants are symptoms affecting the entire planet: habitat loss and human population growth.

22. One main point of the talks is to emphasize that elephants are a “keystone species,” meaning elephants are responsible for the well-being of other animals and plants in their ecosystem.

23. Quite simply, said Laurita, “If you’re saving an elephant, you’re saving everything else at the same time.”

24. Even more than that, Dr. Laurita stressed, “Once you have a species like that and you have become the predator, which we are, you have the responsibility because … we are outside their natural evolution.”

Elephants have evolved beyond their natural predators so, as Dr. Laurita said, “really their population is controlled by things like resource, how much food there is to eat and they adjust the reproductive cycle so they don’t overpopulate so there is a wonderful balance.”

25. Currently, Hope Elephants has developed an education program that will be piloted in Maine schools in the fall.

26. Teaching how ecology works instead of giving a dry definition, is one of the approaches to engaging the facility’s visitors.

In their talks, they give Opal a watermelon (not Rosie — it hurts her stomach so she munches on sticks instead), as a kind of visual for what happens with the seed of an Acacia tree. The seed must pass through an elephant first for the dung beetle to then take the seed and natural fertilizer, and bury it. Without elephants, then, the dung beetle would be out of luck as would be the acacia tree and all the animals who rely on its shade and shelter.

27. The organization’s “lofty goals,” as Stewart refers to them, are to continue developing its education program and expanding its reach beyond Maine.

Conservation, while you’re thinking you want to save animals, you actually have to work with the people, which means education programs in elephant range countries … If you can provide an economic structure that supports the community around elephants and you can inform them about the benefits of having the wildlife there then you’re going to have sustainable long-term project. Whereas if you just stick a fence around elephants and say, “You can’t go in there, you can’t do this,” then you’re not going to have an impact, which is sort of the traditional colonial conservation approach.

Via Andrew Stewart

29. As for addressing the issue of the ivory trade, education will play a crucial role as well.

“If you kill an elephant, and sell the ivory, on average you are making $18,000. That’s the value of that elephant. But if you leave that elephant in place, through tourism and what it brings into the country, that elephant is worth about a million dollars,” Stewart said.

30. A starting point is educating in the U.S. as well as abroad.

The tour emphasizes that while it’s easy to point fingers at countries who kill for ivory, or China for being the No. 1 importer of it, the U.S. is second-largest importer, despite laws banning it.

31. Of course, these goals are only accomplished as they continue to expand the care of Opal and Rosie.

32. They are currently seeking to expand their area to two to three more acres and continue their cutting-edge treatments.

33. After all, “Elephants are in captivity in North America and we cannot release them into the wild, so we are responsible for giving them the best lives possible.”

34. To find out more about or donate to Hope Elephants, visit the site here.

All photos taken by Chelsea Marshall for BuzzFeed.

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