By Tammy Wilson
Hugo, Oklahoma, a small town of about 6,000, lies in the far southeast corner of the state. At first glance one wouldn't think there was much reason to do more than just pass on through. Hugo isn't really one of those places you go on purpose. But we did. And when we told people where we were going, we got a lot of "Why in the world are you going to Hugo?" Our answer was simply, "We're going to see the circus people!"
Hugo, otherwise known as Circus City, is the winter home to four different circuses including the Carson & Barnes Circus, the last traditional traveling 3 ring big top circus in the country.
The circus is something that fills you with wonder and amazement no matter how old you are, and we got to experience the wonder of it firsthand.
We arrived in Hugo one afternoon and (finally) found the offices on the outskirts of the small town where we met up with Kristin Byrd Parra. She is the person that gets all the permits for the animals and she told us that on any given day they could have from one to eight different inspectors at the circus and she makes sure they are in compliance with all the rules of every city, county, and state they visit, so she' a very busy lady.
Parra took time out of her busy schedule for us and gave us a treat we weren't expecting in the least. She took us to the elephant barn. Now, I have been to many circuses in my lifetime as my grandmother always made it a point to take me whenever they came to town and she continues that tradition today with my children, but I have never experienced the circus the way we did that day. I felt like a little kid as I walked into the barn and there were elephants literally lining the walls on both sides of us, only feet away on either side. It was absolutely amazing and I realized I wasn't the only one in awe as I looked at Tonya and Scott and saw they were beaming as well. Of course you want to be as professional as possible when on assignment, but we just grinned from ear to ear and giggled in spite of ourselves for those few moments we were in there with those grand creatures.
Parra lead us into the back room of the barn where I expected to interview her when a man came in with a line of elephants in tow. He led them into a training ring where they then performed just for us. We got to watch them dance, sit, and do tricks like banging a drum and playing a harmonica and I felt giddy as they paraded in front of us and as I looked around the room, I knew I wasn't the only one. It was so surreal and exciting and we were all just staring in wonder.
We met several of the elephants up close and personal and learned many interesting facts about them. They are trained to follow simple voice commands, which was just amazing to me. Barbara was the matriarch of the herd at the ripe old age of 60, and she has been retired from performing for some time now. The life expectancy of an elephant is about 70.
After we got to be kids again we put on our reporter faces and starting digging in.
The Carson & Barnes Circus was started literally as a dog and pony show in the early 1930's by Obert Miller and his two sons, D.R. Miller and Kelly Miller. Parra's grandfather was D.R. Miller and she told us, "He was 8 years old when he saw his first circus and he fell in love with it and from that day on that was all he knew. After my great grandfather passed away, my grandfather, D.R., took over the circus and went into partnership with the gentleman that owned Carson & Barnes and when he passed away my grandfather bought his share out."
D.R. Miller had a friend who was a circus fan and this friend had some political connections and he promised them that if they would bring the circus to Hugo, Oklahoma they would provide them with free water forever. That only lasted a couple of years, but they were there and that's where they've stayed all these years. We asked what it was about Hugo, Oklahoma that was appealing to the circuses, as there are three other circuses that winter there, too, and they are all on the same half mile strip. Parra explained that the weather is one big factor - they don't have harsh winters, the cost of living is reasonable, and they just like the community. Hugo is benefited by the presence of the circuses. "We go out and make money elsewhere and then we come home and this is where we spend our money, so it's good for them too."
In the 1970's there was a law passed that ceased the import of elephants into the United States. All of the elephants that live in the U.S. currently were brought here prior to that law or were born here. D.R. Miller, second generation owner of the Carson & Barnes circus, bought 25 elephants in the 70's. He paid $500.00 each for them and took out a mortgage on the family home. Everyone thought he was crazy. He was crazy - like a fox.
The Carson & Barnes circus now has one of the biggest elephant herds in the country. Competing only with the famous Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Carson & Barnes has the second largest elephant herd in the world and the elephants have been the backbone for three generations of the Miller family's dream to carry on the circus. A small problem, however, faces elephant owners across the country. Elephants can only get pregnant three times a year and there is only a 72-hour window during each of those times, so breeding elephants is not an easy job and many circuses and zoos are facing the fact that the elephants brought over in the early 70's are aging and the herds are not being replenished at a very quick rate. On the chance that one does become pregnant, they carry their baby for 22 months, so they are not able to have very many offspring very close together.
Parra explained, "It's predicted by the year 2050, elephants that will be in the United States will be too old to breed and will be extinct within a few years. Because the rate right now, we just can't produce them. If something is not done about it right now, they will be extinct within our lifetime."
Carson & Barnes has had some luck in breeding, though. Baby Obert was born there and he is learning to follow in the footsteps of the adult elephants and it was very special for us to get to share in that with him.
Our excitement and wonder at being in the midst of such grand animals was quickly turned to sadness when we learned that PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, is trying to shut down the circus. They are literally trying to deprive our children from the wonderful memories the circus holds.
Most people think that PETA is a warm and fuzzy group of loving people that only want what's best for animals. The truth of the matter is they are nothing more than fun haters that will go to severe lengths, including detonating bombs, to reach their goals. They would like the general public to believe that they just want animals to be safe and treated humanely, when in reality they don't want animals to have any interaction with human beings whatsoever. Nor do they want them to be in any kind of captivity, including circuses, zoos, aquariums, and rodeos. They don't even want animals to be used as seeing-eyes for the blind or ears for the deaf. They don't want your child to have a puppy to grow up with and love. They have been quoted to say that they would rather see animals die than to be held in a heated barn where they are bathed and fed daily by people that love them, because it's just not natural.
"They're getting killed over in Asia, the villagers are trying to survive, too, they're fighting for their land so the elephants are the ones losing the battle and that's not there for them anymore. Everyone wants to see them out in the wild, but there is no wild,"
Elephants in the wild are forced to walk 50 to 60 miles a day to seek water and food for survival. They often times die because there is no water or food. They don't walk those miles for exercise; they do it because they have to. PETA would rather see these royal beasts die in the wild of starvation and become extinct like so many large mammals before them than seeing them put smiles on peoples' faces simply because they think they are being mistreated by being "owned" by humans.
There's an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee that received some elephants that were removed from a circus in Illinois and it's funded by animal rights
groups.. They claim they don't interact with them, but that is so far beyond the realm of believability it's not even funny. Elephants must be kept warm – Tennessee is not a particularly warm state. They have to be fed. This proves that PETA do not practice what they preach.
The Carson & Barnes Circus actually had a bomb threat from animal rights activists when they were in Los Angeles. These same people that claim that their interest lies only in their love and compassion for animals obviously have nothing but a blatant disregard for human life. They have bombed animal research facilities saying a rat is a dog is a horse is a person. Yes, they equate the life of a rat, vermin, with that of your lifelong buddy Rover or your young child. PETA has said that even if a cure for AIDS could be found with animal research, they wouldn't support it. They would rather see people die than have animals used in life saving research.
"If we don't wake up and stop these people from what they're doing, it's going to change our whole lives. It's not just us, we're the bottom of the totem pole, we're just an easy target; they're coming after everybody," said Parra.
The circuses are the easy target because they are the smallest tangent of animal performers and they don't have the funds to fight such a big organization. PETA receives almost $30 million a year in donations from people that think they are truly helping save animals; it's pretty safe to say they don't realize they are funding domestic terrorists and have no idea of the atrocities PETA commits to justify their means. People think they are saving mistreated puppies or orphaned kitty cats when they are really funding the Circus Nazis. It is a very real possibility that the circus as we know it and remember it from our childhood may no longer exist in the next twenty years.
We witnessed firsthand the way these elephants live, although we almost didn't get to. The circus folks were very leery of us because they had no idea who we were or what our motives were. Apparently PETA has used tactics such as lying to get into their compound only to try to "expose" the circuses for mistreating animals. It's a sad day when something so historical and awe-inspiring in our state has to worry that people wanting to tell their story are nothing more than spies trying to shut them down
The circus trainers did not change one thing about the way they worked with the animals just because we were there and we witnessed nothing more than some very happy, clean, well fed, warm and loving creatures.
"I've been there when we've had one (elephant) born, I've been there when we've had one die. These people don't understand what we go through and how much we love our animals and care for them. And they are a part of our family. They've been with us, you know. Mine is an African elephant and we've grown up together. The oldest one, Barbara, grew up with my mom. You get attached to them."
The Carson & Barnes Circus has created The Endangered Ark Foundation as a result of their intimate awareness of the bonds and partnerships formed between animals and humans and the need for human involvement and action to save our endangered animal friends. From its beginnings in 1993, the Endangered Ark Foundation has sought to preserve not only the extremely endangered Asian elephant, but also endangered and threatened animals of all types. As director, Mr. Miller established the Foundation's charter to support existing animal refuge areas, provide for the acquisition of land for additional refuge areas, educate the public through programs, pamphlets and media outlets, and to acquire and save threatened and endangered animals. Now, the Endangered Ark Foundation is working to bring D.R's dream to life. Federal funding is being sought under Hugo's Enterprise Community status, and the Ark has been instrumental in raising the necessary funds to conduct studies to analyze and select an appropriate site and to determine development costs. www.carsonbarnescircus.com
"The circus isn't making enough money to keep the Endangered Ark foundation and the circus both above water," Parra said. "There are a lot of things that we're competing against that we didn't have to compete against in the past." She states that things like the internet, movies, and modern technology have hurt them because people have so many more things to do today than they did in the past and entertainment is so easily accessible. "There's a lot of history in the circuses and it would be a shame to not keep it."
They do 2 shows a day seven days a week for 8 ½ months. Each show is two hours long with no intermission. They have 27 semis that travel with them and it costs them about $20,000.00 a day to operate the circus.
Parra said that they've been asked about selling some of the herd to help ease the financial burden and she said, "There's no dollar amount out there that could replace that animal – you can't put a figure on it." If she had to guess, she thought they might fall into the $120,000.00 range each for a trained female elephant.
"The money that gets made goes right back into the show. We're trying to make new ways to where the circus can support itself and we'd like to give the Endangered Ark Foundation enough donations and funds coming in so it can support itself, because really, it's not the circus that's draining everything, it's the combination of the two expenses."
I couldn't imagine that even with a full house every show they could make enough to break even every day and she said there were more days than not that they don't make it. She commented that you don't join the circus for the money; you do it for the love of the circus. "It's too hard of a job if you don't love it," she stated.
They provide two meals a day, coffee and donuts in the morning for the entire circus in a specialized mobile cookhouse. They have their own generator system to run their lights. They are entirely self-sufficient other than relying on the cities they visit for water and space. They have three offices: the one in Hugo, one in California that handles booking and promotions, and a mobile one that travels with them on the road.
With so many people traveling with the circus, there are of course entire families with children. Parra explained that is where most of the circus performers come from, from growing up with the circus. They have one family that are 9th generation bareback riders that originally came over to the United States from Italy. Parra and her sister both went to college and earned their degrees, but their love for the circus and their family's business keeps them there. "I wouldn't know what to do without the circus," she stated.
We wanted to provide the schedule so everyone could see when they circus would be coming to their town, but they do not openly give out their route because of the danger of the animal rights activists. They will normally start advertising in the towns about a month before they come, so keep your eyes opened for the posters. Pay attention to the name of the circus and try to go to one with a known name because there are some where you won't get the same quality of show as you will with one like Carson & Barnes. They will allow people to come in the morning while they set up and see the animals and get a free preview and a lot of circuses will, so go early and get a peek.
My biggest fascination with the circus is the personal interaction and the behind-the-scenes relationships. The Carson & Barnes Circus has 160 people traveling with them and Parra told us, "I have never known a group of people to come together like we do. I have seen where the tent was blown down and every one of the 160 of us was out there helping to get it back up. There is not a single person on the show whose job isn't as important as the next one, everybody's job is important or we wouldn't have that job available."
If a group wanted the circus to come to their town, they would "sponsor" them by helping them advertise and selling tickets and that group would get a portion of the ticket sales so it's a win-win situation as Parra says because "money's going back into the community and we're providing great entertainment also." You can visit www.carsonbarnescircus.com to find out how to get the circus to your town.
Next time you see the circus is coming to town, make plans to go. Go early and watch the big top being raised. Ride the elephants. See the white tiger get fed. Pet the camels. Smell the popcorn and buy some cotton candy. Don't say you can't afford it. If you don't want to lose the circus, you can't afford not to.