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Maine Elephant Care Center Vet Killed by Elephant

PORTLAND, Maine — A veterinarian and co-founder of Hope Elephants, which cares for retired circus elephants, was killed Tuesday when one of the animals stepped on him, police said in ruling his death an accident.

Knox County Sheriff's Office deputies said they found James Laurita, 56, unresponsive in the barn at the foundation in Hope, about 87 miles northeast of Portland. Laurita appeared to have fallen before one of the foundation's two elephants apparently stepped on him, police said, citing a medical examiner's report.

Tending to the animals was part of Laurita's daily routine at the facility he founded with his brother Tom in 2011. Hope Foundation's two Asian elephants, Rosie and Opal, arrived in 2012.

"The elephant was not aggressive in any way. It was clearly an accident," said Mark Belserene, administrator for the state medical examiner's office, who added that the official cause of death is "asphyxiation and multiple fractures caused by compression of the chest."

Laurita sold his veterinarian practice in nearby Camden in 2011 to establish Hope Elephants, where he worked as a caregiver and educator. He lived with his family in the area.

"We’re really just digesting this," said Justin McInenny, a member of the board of directors of Hope Elephants told the Bangor Daily News. "It’s a great shock to everybody."

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— The Associated Press