HOPE, Maine — When Rosie the retired circus elephant arrived in Hope, she walked with a shuffling, stiff-legged gait. Her trunk was so weak that she couldn’t pick it up all the way. When she got hungry, she raised it as high as it would go and tossed food and water into her mouth from there.

Seven months later, Rosie can move without the overwhelming stiffness that had plagued her for years. She’s well enough to kick around her new ball and walk across the acre-wide paddock to fellow elephant and friend Opal.

She can now raise her trunk high enough to more easily feed herself — and, on one recent afternoon, high enough to reach over and pull a sweet apple bough out of Opal’s mouth.

“This is really good for Rosie. She’s had a lot of social problems in her life . . . she’s really people-oriented,” said Jim Laurita, who brought Rosie and Opal to Maine in October and began offering tours and educational programs to the public a month later. “She’s really becoming an elephant.”

Elephants in Maine. When Laurita and his brother, Tom, first proposed the idea two years ago, some called it wonderful, certain the elephants would find peace, love and state-of-the-art care in Hope. They believed that if anyone could make a go of Hope Elephants, it would be Laurita, a beloved and charismatic small-town veterinarian who had worked with these particular elephants as a young man and was determined to give them a better life.

Others called it crazy, adamant that the animals would instead suffer from cold weather, confined spaces and loneliness. They thought Laurita — who tended to dogs and cats and had a lot of theories but little recent, direct experience with aging elephants — shouldn’t even be allowed to try.

Today, Hope Elephants is a reality. And it’s popular. More than 7,000 people, 3,000 of them schoolchildren, have visited Rosie and Opal since the facility opened to the public in November.

“It’s still kind of bizarre, but it’s a wonderful type of bizarre,” said Hope Town Administrator Jonathan Duke. “Anytime I go to meetings with other town managers or administrators, the first question is they want to know about the elephants. It’s put us on the map.”

Critics, however, still aren’t so sure Hope Elephants should exist.

“Think about it this way: If you were an animal from a tropical or warm climate, would you like to be stuck in … Maine?” said Tim Harrison, head of Ohio-based nonprofit Outreach for Animals. “I would say no.”

But Laurita, his volunteers and visitors say the facility is meeting its greatest goal: improving the elephants’ quality of life.

“It’s amazing. He’s doing God’s work,” said Jaqui Ibbitson, who drove up from Massachusetts with her husband to visit the elephants one day last week. She watched as Opal tossed hay onto her back. “I mean, you can tell they’re happy.”

‘Something special for these girls’

Laurita was 18 and living in New York when he put college on hold to join the Carson & Barnes Circus in the late 1970s. He and his brother had a juggling act, but the circus required more work than that.

Laurita took a second job with the elephants and quickly fell in love with their intelligence, empathy and character. An old snapshot from that time shows Laurita grinning broadly as he stands among five young circus elephants, his hand resting on the head of one. Rosie is beside him; Opal stands a few steps away.

“That work kind of took over because I enjoyed that more than juggling,” he said.

Eventually, Laurita went back to college, but he returned again and again to the circus to work with the elephants. He graduated from Cornell University’s veterinary school in 1989.

Over the years he would work at the Bronx Zoo and as head elephant trainer for a wildlife safari park in Oregon. He traveled to India to work with elephants and to research elephant veterinary care.

But his wife was from Maine and she wanted to live here. They settled in the Knox County town of Hope and Laurita started a practice just over the Camden line in Rockport. He treated mostly dogs and cats.

“I love all animals. Elephants, Chihuahuas. I work with all animals. But always in the back of my mind, my brother Tom and I had the idea that we had to do something special for these girls some day,” said Laurita, 54. “So when it became time for me to slow down as a vet, we went back to this project.”

Two years ago the brothers formed the nonprofit that would become Hope Elephants. Laurita sold his veterinary practice for funding and they started the process of getting town, state and federal approval for a kind of elephant rehab and retirement home.

The plan was too unusual not to draw attention. News organizations and animal advocacy groups quickly picked up — and passed around — the Hope Elephants story.

“We were critical of the proposal, and that was based on both public safety and animal welfare concerns,” said Catherine Doyle, director of science, research and advocacy for the Performing Animal Welfare Society, known as PAWS, in California.

PAWS, In Defense of Animals in California, Outreach for Animals in Ohio and other groups opposed Laurita’s plan, saying he didn’t know enough about caring for aging elephants, he planned to bring only one — which would be devastating to an animal as social as the elephant — his space was too small, Maine’s climate was too cold and he didn’t have emergency safety plans.

An online petition to “Save Rosie the Elephant from a Lonely, Freezing Maine Winter” generated nearly 56,000 signatures, some from people in other countries. Actress and comedian Lily Tomlin, who worked with In Defense of Animals, wrote Maine’s governor and urged him to stop Hope Elephants before it started.

One group encouraged its members to write letters to town officials to express their displeasure with Laurita’s plan. They did, in droves.

“It got to the point where we had to unplug our fax machine,” said Duke, the town administrator. “We were running out of paper and toner and everything. I unplugged it and we had, like, 800 of them. If we get eight responses on most (Planning Board) applications, that’s a lot. So 800, it was not what we expected.”

Laurita said the controversy was largely fueled by wrong information. For example, news stories at the time widely reported that Laurita said he would have only one elephant, Rosie. Laurita said that was wrong and he always intended to have two.

“Like we didn’t know that they’re social animals,” he said.

Not everyone opposed the brothers’ plan. Nearly 100 people attended a Hope Planning Board public hearing about Hope Elephants; only two were against it.

“They all showed up; they wanted to support it,” Duke said. “All the neighbors, which was really important.”

A number of Laurita’s supporters knew him through his veterinary practice. One was Fred Brown, who took his dogs to Laurita for years.

“His expertise, his professionalism. He’s very friendly. You couldn’t ask for a better guy,” Brown said.

Brown was so taken with Laurita, his plan and enthusiasm, that he became one of Hope Elephants’ first volunteers.

While other people might have thought it was a crazy idea, he said, “I didn’t, because I know Jim. If one of my neighbors had said it, I would think they’re nuts.”

Hope Elephants received the local, state and federal approval it needed. Laurita constructed an acre-wide paddock and a 60- by 52-foot barn next to his family home. While the brothers founded the facility together, Laurita’s brother, a 55-year-old Camden businessman who commutes out of state for work, would help with overall management. Laurita would be in charge of the day-to-day operations, along with a group of dedicated volunteers and four employees.

In October, with the blessing of Carson & Barnes Circus and Endangered Ark, the circus’ elephant retirement facility in Oklahoma where Rosie and Opal were living, Laurita brought the elephants to their new home.

The outside, with its trees, brush, dirt, sand pile, toys and open space, was designed to provide entertainment, enrichment and exercise. The inside, with its sand-covered, heated floor, was designed for the elephants’ comfort.

“The guys down in Oklahoma are like, ‘The girls went up to Maine to lay on the beach,’” Laurita said.

It took Rosie, 43, and Opal, 41, less than a day to get used to the place.

“Opal went over to that tree and started pushing on it until it made a crack and it scared her and she ran away, ran back to Rosie … The next day she went out there to the tree and just demolished it. Knocked it down. She was screaming at it, charging at it, false charging, and trumpeting. That made us happy, ” Laurita said. “Rosie went over [to the sand pile]. It was a sunny day and she just laid down and went to sleep in the sun.”

‘It’s all he’s still talking about, the elephants’

Weighing about 8,000 pounds each and with skin the same brownish-gray, it’s not easy to tell Rosie and Opal apart. Their caregivers point out Opal’s high-domed forehead and honey-colored eyes, Rosie’s long tail and thick trunk. Tossing hay over her head? Chances are it’s Opal. Happily people-watching? Sounds like Rosie.

Taken into the circus as youngsters, Rosie and Opal have shared the same herd for 40 years. But Rosie, bottle-raised, preferred the company of humans and had trouble socializing with other elephants. At one point about 10 years ago, an altercation with another elephant left her with nerve damage to her shoulder and led to the stiff-legged gait she had when she first arrived at Hope Elephants.

It’s why, Laurita said, he was choosy about the elephant he would pair Rosie with in Maine. He’d originally dreamed of building a home for her and Sis, another elephant he fell in love with during his circus days, but Sis died in the 1990s.

“I wasn’t there. I heard about it,” he said. The feeling was like, “a shot to the gut.”

Laurita ultimately chose Opal because she and Rosie appeared to be good friends. On a recent afternoon, the pair shared some apple boughs and Opal showered Rosie with hay.

“They’re like sisters,” Laurita said.

For a suggested donation of $15 for adults and $10 for children, visitors get a 45-minute tour of the facility, the bulk of which is spent watching Rosie and Opal from several feet away behind two fences. It’s designed to be highly educational for the humans — a guide spends most of the time talking about the plight of the endangered Asian elephant, outlining Rosie and Opal’s care and answering questions — and designed to be low-stress for the elephants.

There is no riding, touching or getting into the pen with the animals.

“We’ll watch them eat. We’ll watch them drink,” Laurita said.

Despite the limited interaction, visitors say the elephants have left them in awe. Especially the very youngest visitors.

“My son’s preschool class went up this last week and they loved it. They’re very excited about it,” Duke said. “It’s all he’s still talking about, the elephants.”

Amelia Mank visited with her toddler nephew, parents, grandmother, boyfriend and her boyfriend’s young daughter one afternoon last week. Her nephew, nearly 2, was entranced.

“He’s been saying, ‘Yay!’ and making the [trumpeting] noise,” she said. “I grew up in Hope, so it’s weird for me. I’m in college and I came back and it was done. I was just like, ‘That is so cool.’”

Unlike at the circus, the only elephant performances visitors get in Hope are the regular exercises Laurita does with Rosie and Opal to increase their range of motion. Using a ball on a stick as a target, he tells the elephants to lift their trunks or legs to touch the ball.

Their reward: nuggets of Purina elephant chow.

Rosie and Opal have added 300 to 400 pounds each in the past seven months. Each day, they eat four pounds of elephant chow, seven bales of hay, assorted apples and carrots and apple boughs. To help with their joints, they also get a daily dose of glucosamine and chondroitin donated by Coastside Bio Resources in Stonington.

“Turns out the owner there, Peter, is an elephant nut. He’s donated that to these girls for life,” Laurita said. “These are the only elephants in the country on it.”

Although Rosie and Opal appear to move easier than when they first arrived, it’s hard to say why. It could be the daily exercises and warm sand floor at night. It could be the supplement. It could be the other therapies Laurita does, such as acupuncture and therapeutic ultrasound to help with a granuloma between two of Opal’s toes.

He’d like to do even more. Laurita wants to install a $100,000 water treadmill for the elephants.

At the moment Hope Elephants doesn’t have the money for that. It also doesn’t yet have the money to pay for the museum-like educational center Laurita would like to create in a barn space that currently sports student mock-ups of games and exhibits.

It costs tens of thousands of dollars a month just to care for the elephants.

“We hope that the big donors, once they see that we’re kind of established and we’re just not going to go away, that some of the big donations will start coming in,” Laurita said.

However, opponents of Hope Elephants from two years ago largely remain opposed. They’d rather see Rosie and Opal in a full, accredited sanctuary, which Hope Elephants is not.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a retirement for these elephants at all,” said Nicole Meyer, director of In Defense of Animal’s elephant protection campaign.

Their concerns from two years ago remain concerns today: Laurita doesn’t know enough about caring for aging elephants, Maine’s climate is too cold, Laurita doesn’t seem to have adequate emergency safety plans and the elephants’ space is too small.

Laurita maintains those concerns are unfounded.

He said he regularly consults with some of the best elephant vets in the country and is giving Rosie and Opal “Cadillac care” they wouldn’t receive at another facility. In Hope they receive an hour or two of therapy every day and another hour or two of exercising.

He said some of the most successful elephant facilities are in cold climates and Asian elephants in the wild sometimes deal with cooler temperatures, evidence that elephants do fine in cold weather. He said Rosie and Opal had to stay in the heated barn only 18 days this winter due to the cold. And despite their arthritis, the weather didn’t seem to bother them.

“We plow back [about 75 yards] to the big pine, but they can go in the deeper snow if they want to,” he said. “Rosie certainly would always go in the deeper snow, make little snowballs and throw them into her mouth.”

As for safety concerns, Laurita said he’s filed an emergency plan with the Knox County Emergency Management Agency. The EMA confirmed that, and the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, the police force for Hope, said it has a copy.

And although Rosie and Opal don’t have miles to roam like they would in the wild, both indoor and outdoor spaces meet or exceed the standards set by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Laurita said he is working on getting accreditation for Hope Elephants, but he declined to say with which organizations until he’s further along in the process.

In the meantime, Laurita continues to work with Rosie and Opal and to open the facility to tours. As summer approaches and Hope Elephants becomes more well-known, the facility is gaining in popularity. Earlier this week, 150 schoolchildren visited in one day.

But Laurita said it’s seeing the elephants improve — right in his backyard — that makes him really happy.

“It makes me feel wonderful,” he said. “They’re having a wonderful life.”