OSHA investigates death of elephant caretaker

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Federal workplace safety officials have launched an investigation into the death of a Maine man who was crushed by one of the two elephants in his care.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration sent an investigator to the site this month after retired veterinarian James Laurita died in an enclosure with the elephants in the town of Hope. Police said one of the animals apparently stepped on him. The death was ruled an accident.

There is no timetable for the OSHA investigation.

Laurita's decision to go into the enclosure with the elephants runs counter to a growing consensus that there should be barriers between elephants and their caretakers or handlers.

The national zoo accreditation agency is requiring the use of barriers by June 2017.

"There were simply too many accidents. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums board wanted to take steps to prevent this from happening again," said Rob Vernon, a spokesman for the organization.

The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, which is the nation's first and largest natural habitat for retired captive elephants, began requiring protective barriers after a caretaker died in 2006.

So-called protected contact barriers are metal bars that provide protection while allowing the caretaker to interact with the elephant.

"It radically decreases the likelihood of accidents that might result in injury or fatality," said Mary Beth Ikard, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee facility, which is home to 13 elephants.

Andrew Stewart, director of Hope Elephants, said its caretakers would have been unable to provide therapy for the elephants if they had used those guidelines. He declined to comment further pending the outcome of the OSHA investigation.

Laurita, who was found unresponsive in a barn on Sept. 9, founded Hope Elephants with his brother Tom in 2011, selling his veterinarian practice to raise money.

The elephants, Rosie and Opal, have been returned to an Oklahoma sanctuary for now.

Ed Stewart, founder of the Performing Animal Welfare Society in California, said some caretakers probably believe the old practices in which people interacted with elephants were safe.

"But of all the people who were killed, nobody thought they were going to be killed. They thought it was OK. They thought they were safe. But elephants just aren't safe," he said.