(CNN) — A veterinarian with a passion for elephants died Tuesday, apparently crushed to death in “a tragic accident” by one of the giant mammals he spent his life caring for, authorities said.
Dr. Jim Laurita was the full-time caregiver for two elephants on his property in Hope, Maine. His rehabilitation facility and elephant “educational destination” was dubbed “Hope Elephants.”
Knox County Sheriff’s deputies were called to the facility Tuesday morning after “Dr. Laurita had fallen in the corral and struck his head on the cement floor” as he tended to the elephants, according to Sheriff Donna Dennison.
The 56-year-old was dead before they arrived.
Mark Belserene with the state’s Medical Examiner’s Office said the cause of death was “asphyxia and multiple fractures due to compression of the chest.” He said he does not suspect “any aggressive behavior by the elephant.”
“This is clearly a tragic accident,” said Belserene.
The two Asian elephants Laurita cared for weighed nearly 8,000 pounds apiece, according to the facility’s website.
According to his bio, Laurita sold his veterinary practice in 2011 to establish his nonprofit and to focus on caring for Rosie and Opal, two retired circus performers that suffered from “deteriorating or damaged joints and muscles.” The pachyderms take part in “daily therapeutic ultrasound treatment, hydrotherapy and low-impact exercise.”
Hope Elephants released a statement saying they are “deeply saddened by the loss” of their founder and said Laurita’s “passion for all animals, but especially elephants, was boundless.”
CNN’s Kevin Conlon contributed to this report.
By Teri Genova