Maine and the world’s largest land mammal seem an unlikely pair, but the two share a long, curious history.
By Amy Sutherland
Photographed by Amy Wilton
Outside the barn, an early cold snap sharpens the air and casts a stillness among the leafless trees in this dell in the Camden Hills. On the last day of November the sun is low, weak rays cant off the shingled building, and behind it, even in early afternoon, Hatchet Mountain looms like a dark shadow. Underfoot, grass crackles and the ground hardens to slick pavement.
Inside the airy barn, two Asian elephants lazily snack on hay, swishing it around with their trunks, flapping their ears slowly as they do. They gently rock their great grey bulks back and forth on the heated sand underfoot.
This is the coldest day since Rosie and Opal, middle-aged, retired circus elephants, moved from Oklahoma to this Maine barn. Here they will be treated for arthritis and, in Rosie’s case, injuries to one leg and her trunk. This sanctuary is the brainchild of two brothers, Jim and Tom Laurita, who once ran off and joined the circus. Back then they thought of doing something for the elephants some day. Now a Maine veterinarian and a businessman respectively, the duo formed a nonprofit to build this therapeutic facility for the two aging elephants that they first met so many years ago. “We delivered on something we dreamed of when we were young,” Laurita says.
Rosie and Opal are Maine’s only year-round resident elephants. They aren’t the first to call the state home, and there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of visiting pachyderms before them. One even landed on Maine’s shores as an extravagant gift.
How and why the elephants came to Maine reflect both the state’s history and Americans’ changing attitudes toward an animal that looks like something Dr. Seuss dreamed up. The first elephant came as an exotic, entertaining lesson of the great wide world beyond Maine’s isolated farm towns. Rosie and Opal arrived as people have become increasingly ambivalent about elephants in zoos and circuses, though they continue to flock to both. Emotions run high about animals, so high that even moving two retired circus elephants to a facility designed especially for them can spark controversy.
The story of elephants and Maine starts with a grave marker, a rough, uneven slap of granite plopped in a grassy dip hard along Route 4 in Alfred. The darkened bronze marker reads “Site of Slaying of Elephant.” The date is July 24, 1816, the day an Alfred farmer killed an elephant on Route 4. The animal is nameless on her stone. She was Old Bet, the second elephant in America.
When Bruce Tucker moved to Alfred thirty years ago, he found everyone had their own version of the crime, but none of them added up. So Tucker, a technician at Pratt and Whitney by day, a historian by night, combed through newspaper accounts to set the record straight.
In 1804, Old Bet landed in Boston, from where is unknown. Four years later, Hachaliah Bailey, a farmer with aims beyond his barns and fields, bought her at a New York City cattle market. She is described as an African elephant in some accounts but was likely an Asian. She was known for her gentleness and for uncorking and guzzling bottles of beer.
Bailey toured Old Bet around New England, displaying her in barns and tavern yards for twenty-five cents and walking her from town to town at night when no one could gawk at her for free. In 1816 he loaded her and a caged lion aboard a boat and visited Maine seaports as far north as Belfast and then headed up the Kennebec River to Augusta and Hallowell. From there they parted ways with the lion and headed on foot to Lewiston, New Gloucester, and Alfred.
It was “The Year Without a Summer,” when frosts killed crop after crop, and snow fell in July. In Alfred, Daniel Davis and his brother mortgaged their farms to build a sawmill. Then Davis’ brother died. Davis became responsible for two families, two frost-bitten, failing farms, and all the debt. Many people were desperate that summer, Tucker says, Davis probably more so.
As Bailey and his attendants strode Old Bet through the unusually cool summer night of July 16 to Alfred, Davis hid in the bushes along the edge of the road. Davis stepped close to the elephant and fired two musket balls into her just behind her shoulder. Old Bet charged down the road and collapsed.
Newspapers around the Northeast ran stories about the crime under headlines like “Murder Most Foul.” Alfred residents were mortified, Tucker says. Having seen an elephant was considered a sign of sophistication, even erudition, and now the town of Alfred would be known for killing one. Davis served three days in jail, was let out on bail, and then vanished from the historical record. “He was quoted as saying, ‘Paying twenty-five cents to see the elephant is a bad way to be taking money out of the pockets of people who needed it more,’” Tucker says.
Bailey, always looking for the next opportunity, had Old Bet field-dressed where she lay. Her innards were left to decay on the side of road. Her skeleton and hide were sent on tour. Bailey made as much money from touring Old Bet’s remains as he did from touring the elephant, Tucker says. Bailey bought a second elephant and named her Little Bet. Rhode Island farmers shot and killed her in 1826.
Traveling menageries of tigers, lions, orangutans, elephants, and the like moved around the country by wagon and boat well into the nineteenth century. It’s likely other elephants visited Maine this way, but the next in the historical record washed ashore.
In 1836 a steamer en route to Boston caught fire near Vinalhaven Island. Mark Warner, the author of The Tragedy of the Royal Tar, was raised in a house that was under construction then, and he says the workers took a seat on the roof to watch the fire. Aboard the Royal Tar were some ninety passengers and a traveling menagerie of exotic animals, including an elephant named Mogul.
Rough waters daunted a schooner sent to the rescue. Some sixty people survived. The animals were left to their own devices. The caged animals succumbed to the smoke or went down with the ship. The horses swam until they drowned. Mogul was last seen swimming downwind toward Isle au Haut.
In a children’s book, The Circus Ship by Chris Van Dusen, Mogul survives and makes friends with the islanders. In reality, his remains were discovered on uninhabited Brimstone Island, where Vinalhaven residents have long picnicked, Warner says. No bones remain, though the island’s historical society has bits of the Royal Tar. Warner guesses that Mogul washed away slowly, the way a whale skeleton would. But that hasn’t kept a few young islanders from searching for Mogul’s ribs. “On rainy days when we were trapped in the house, my parents would say why don’t you go down shore and look for tigers’ teeth and elephant bones,” Warner says.
When you walk down many of the main streets of Maine towns you are walking in elephants’ footsteps. During the heyday of the circus, the bigheaded beasts strode through the likes of Ashland, Skowhegan, Lewiston, and Biddeford, swinging their trunks past the soda fountain, the dry goods store, and the library.
Though the circus elephants came each year, and still do to a far smaller degree, they have never stayed. No elephant did until Kitubinissa, a young Asian elephant who called Northport home in the 1950s. Pakistan gave her to former governor Horace Hildreth, then ambassador to that recently minted country. “I think he was a little shocked,” says his son, Horace Hildreth Jr.
It was a time when you could easily accept the gift of a pachyderm from a faraway land (importing elephants to the U.S. was essentially banned in 1973 ). Hildreth not only received Kitubinissa, but also her mahout, or trainer, Cyril Ray, a young, handsome Pakistani. The two moved into the barn at the family’s summerhouse in Northport, where Kitubinissa wandered the fields eating grass. “Passing cars would come screeching to a halt,” Hildreth recalls.
When fall came, Kitubinissa and her mahout moved south with the family to their Cumberland home. She lived in a heated barn and liked to suck iced soda drinks into her trunk, then spray them on whoever held the glass.
Hildreth’s father took her to one state Republican convention and had dreams of taking her to the national convention. But then Kitubinissa’s mahout decided he didn’t want to be a mahout anymore. The last the family knew of him he was a railroad porter. Without a trainer for his elephant, Hildreth Sr. donated her to Stoneham’s Stone Zoo, where he would occasionally visit her. After he died, the family moved her to the zoo in Syracuse, New York, where she wouldn’t be the only elephant. In the nineties, when zoos began elephant fertility programs in earnest, Kitubinissa became pregnant, but died in childbirth.
In 1998 Maine got another resident elephant, but she, like summer people, decamped each Labor Day. David and Carmen Tesch brought Lydia, a sixty-three-year-old Asian elephant with a soft spot for cinnamon bread, from Florida to York’s Wild Kingdom just before Memorial Day each year.
For fifteen years, Lydia played the harmonica, painted, and gave rides. Few U.S. zoos give elephant rides anymore because of the possible liability should someone get hurt and the pressure from animal rights activists to not do so. In her early days at the zoo, Lydia took as many as eight kids at a time. Eventually Tesch limited it to four. This summer there were none, as Tesch retired Lydia after running into problems with her state permits. He’d already been thinking of doing so, he says, noting she is old for an elephant by any standard, but still in good shape. She’ll spend the rest of her days on their Florida compound. The zoo has no plans as of now to get another elephant.
On her first day in Maine, Opal charged a dead apple tree, which she knocked over with a crack. She trumpeted and ran to Rosie. When she regained her nerve, she pulled a plant from the ground and placed it on her head like a hat. Rosie explored a sand heap with her trunk.
Jim Laurita spent over a year getting all the permits he needed to move the elephants here from the winter quarters of the Carson & Barnes Circus in Hugo, Oklahoma. Animal activists fought the process all the way, saying his facility was too small and that the winters would be too cold. Laurita countered that the Zoological Association of America requires half an acre per elephant, so his one-acre yard would be enough for two animals. Also, the barn and its floor would be heated. In the end, the feds and state agreed with Laurita.
Maine is now home to a facility, albeit small, unlike anything else in the country, devoted to treating arthritis in aging elephants. Laurita plans to establish a protocol using exercise, glucosamine and, once the hundred thousand dollars is raised to buy it, an underwater treadmill. He also hopes to improve Rosie’s trunk, which has nerve damage. She cannot raise it all the way to her mouth.
Laurita wants to use the animals as zoos do now, to mint young conservationists by the very sight of an elephant. In a way, it’s a return to the old menageries, where seeing an elephant taught you about the broader world, only now the lesson is that that world is disappearing.
Laurita, like a new father, has thought about the two every waking second since they arrived. He even slept in the barn the first week. But they are far from the only arthritic elephants in the country. The animals in America’s zoos and circuses are aging and, like humans, they get arthritis. If Hope Elephants succeeds, others could follow Opal and Rosie. From here on out, there might always be an elephant or two in Maine.
Amy Sutherland is the author of three books, including What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage.