Victor, Hugo and the Elephants

For years I’d been side-stepping Hugo without a thought. Heading north from Houston toward the east side of Kansas City, my route never varied: Lufkin, Nacogdoches and Paris in Texas, a quick slide through Oklahoma on the Indian Nation and Will Rogers turnpikes, a swing around Joplin and an easy final leg up to Blue Springs.

Tucked into a bend in the road at the southern terminus of the Indian Nation, bereft of glitzy billboards or even a retro gas station at the intersection, Hugo is all but invisible from the four-lane. If you’re just passing through with no reason to take the business route into town, you could be excused for thinking Hugo resembles other hamlets clustered along the Texas-Oklahoma border –  Powderville, Arthur City, Frogville.

I wasn’t sure what I’d find in Hugo, but I’d had my curiosity piqued and decided a visit was in order. After all, the Evergreen Cemetery in Paris may have Willet Babcock’s fancied-up tomb topped with a life-sized Jesus wearing cowboy boots, but Hugo’s Mt. Olivet boasts three world championship rodeo cowboys, the original Marlboro Man and William Edmond Ansley, one of twenty or so midgets who made a career of promoting “Buster Brown” shoes across the country.

Even more famous is the section of Mt. Olivet called “Showman’s Rest”.  Filled with a multitude of memorials to clowns, trapeze artists, bareback riders and elephant trainers, it’s one of the primary year-round attractions of an Oklahoma town that likes to bill itself “Circus City, USA”.

Well-known as a circus town since before World War II, Hugo’s reputation began in 1937 when Vernon Pratt, a local grocer and circus enthusiast, decided to stop stocking shelves for a bit and make a run over to Mena, Arkansas, where the Al G. Kelly-Miller Circus over-wintered.  Searching out circus owner Obert Miller, Pratt extended an invitation to bring Kelly-Miller west. Obert agreed, packed up the pachyderms and headed for Hugo, where his circus became a permanent fixture of town life.

Thanks to a relatively congenial climate, accessible land and plentiful grass, more circuses followed, including Stevens Brothers, Cole & Walters, Don Karr, James Christy and the Fairyland Circus begun by Obert Miller’s son, the late D.R. Miller.  Today, three nationally-known circuses call Hugo home – The Kelly-Miller, the Culpepper & Merriweather and Carson & Barnes, the last traditional traveling three-ring tented circus in the country. (D.R. Miller, who started Carson & Barnes, once said,”There was never a Carson or Barnes. We chose the names because they sounded good together.”)

Life in Circus City, USA has its moments, especially for a visitor. Stray from the beaten path, start skirting the edges of town, and before long you’ll find your attention caught by creatures other than the occasional horse or free-roaming dog. There are, for example, the elephants.

Easing my way down Kirk Road, browsing the scenery, wondering where the elephants might be, I found my answer just outside the gates of The Endangered Ark, a foundation established and run by the Carson & Barnes Circus as an Asian elephant breeding facility and retirement home.  Begun in 1993 and initially dedicated to educational outreach, the Ark soon became home to the second largest herd of Asian elephants in America. The history is fascinating.

In spring 1995, Bucky Steele sold all of his elephants, sans Buke, to D.R. Miller, owner of Carson and Barnes Circus. Prior to his death, Miller, the circus kingpin, constructed the Endangered Ark Foundation with the purpose of both contributing to the captive Asian elephant population and ensuring the future of elephants with the circus.
The facility’s first in-house birth was celebrated in late 1998 with the birth of Baby Jennie to Buke and Carson and Barnes own imported elephant, Isa. As with many Asian elephant calves, five year old Jennie succumbed to the deadly Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpes Virus in 2004. With at least one stillborn recorded in between, Buke sired his second successful calf, again with Isa, for Carson and Barnes. The male calf, named Obert after D.R. Miller’s father, was born in August 2003, almost a year following Buke’s death.
The Endangered Ark Foundation celebrated their following successful births with pairings between the captive born Tommy and former Steele elephant Whimpy. In April 2007, Val was born at the Oklahoma facility, followed by her brother Hugo nearly four years later to the day.

(For more photos, click here and here.)

Seeing a chain across the entrance to the Endangered Ark, I pulled up next to the drive, grabbed my camera and was working my way down the fence line when a fellow emerged from a trailer across the road to hail me. Stocky, with dark, curly hair that reminded me of Sal Mineo, he was wearing a tee shirt emblazoned with a remarkably realistic tiger. As it turned out, he trained big cats for one of the circuses and apparently helped out with elephant security. The Ark was closed, he said, but would re-open in the future and tours would be available.

At the time, I didn’t ask any of the questions that come to mind now, but another fellow I talked with later didn’t seem to think the closure unusual. (The second man’s name was Victor. Later, I was amused to discover the town of Hugo had been re-named for French novelist Victor Hugo after citizens were told by the Post Office their first choice – “Raymond” – already was taken. Mrs. W.H. Darrough, wife of a pioneer builder, suggested “Hugo” in honor of her favorite writer. With Paris, Texas just down the road, it seemed fitting.)

Whatever the reason for the Ark’s closure – the end of the season, security, the needs of the elephants – there’s no question I’d arrived there just as a remarkable, nation-wide struggle involving two of its residents also was coming to a close.

A retired elephant named Rosie had lived at the Ark for some time. A bottle-fed orphan, she bonded well with humans but was ostracized by her herd and sometimes attacked by them. After developing arthritis because of her injuries, her ability to walk was compromised, and lying down or getting up were difficult.

Maine veterinarian Jim Laurita and his brother Tom had a relationship with Rosie stetching back to the 1970s.  They met her while working with Carson & Barnes as teenagers. Tom had been a juggler and ring master, Jim, an elephant handler and trainer. Rosie’s plight moved the Lauritas to establish Hope Elephants, a non-profit organization dedicated to conservation education as well as the care of retired and injured elephants. A primary purpose would be to bring Rosie to Maine, allowing her to receive state-of-the-art physical therapies for her injuries including hydrotherapy, acupuncture, laser treatments, ultrasound, and time on a 60-foot-long underwater treadmill, the first such device designed for elephants.

Groups such as In Defense of Animals (IDA), the ASPCA  and supporters of the Animal Welfare Act were opposed to Rosie’s move to Maine. Many preferred she be allowed to live out her days at one of the two elephant sanctuaries in the United States – The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee, or the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) sanctuary in southern California.

A variety of issues were raised. There were concerns about isolation, since elephants are social animals who don’t take well to being separated from their herd. Rosie wasn’t particularly tight with her herd anyway, but in the end it was arranged for her to be accompanied by a friend, an elephant named Opal who also has problems with her legs and walks with difficulty. It seems the shared handicap created a bit of a bond between the two, and confidence is high they’ll continue to get along.

Weather came in for a good bit of discussion, even though Dr. Laurita is located along the relatively more temperate Maine coast. Some pointed to elephants in Canadian zoos as examples of creatures who’ve adapted to the cold (with the help of shelters, of course) but others argued that harsh Canadian winters have contributed to elephant disease and death. The shelters themselves came in for a good bit of discussion. With elephants, size does count, and many were afraid the barns and acreage simply weren’t going to be adequate for Rosie and Opal.

Catherine Doyle, IDA elephant campaign director, was concerned that Dr. Laurita didn’t have enough contemporary experience dealing with elephants. “I have to keep going back to the fact that Laurita’s experience with elephants in the past was in a circus and in zoos that used free contact and bullhooks. There is no indication whatsoever that [he] ever learned another way of managing elephants.”  (That “other way” is called protected contact. If you’re interested, you can find a brief discussion of the two forms of training here.)

Eventually, Jim Laurita met his goal. The money was raised, the permits issued, the construction completed and the welcome mat laid out. Near the end of October, Rosie and Opal arrived in Maine, where they continue to settle into their new home. Despite differing and strongly-held opinions about the proper course to follow, everyone seems united now in wishing only the best for the elephants, that they should thrive and that therapies developed at Hope will benefit elephants around the world.

One thing seems certain. It would take a Victor Hugo to capture fully the magic of elephants, their intelligence and memory. When Rosie met Jim Laurita again after an absence of so many years, she remembered her former handler. “Elephants, like people, don’t forget kindness,” he said. “She meandered over, opened up her mouth, and wanted me to pet her tongue.”

To leave a comment or respond, just click below. And please – no reblogging.
For a beautifully written and thoughtful exploration of the role of animals in the circus, click here.

56 thoughts on “Victor, Hugo and the Elephants

    1. montucky,

      We keep finding new little worlds in outer space, but there are a multitude of worlds spinning right here on earth. I had no idea how many people love and dedicate their lives to elephants, or how intriguing and complicated the circus-world is.

      I’m sure you know people who like to keep track of relationships, who’ll say things like, “You remember her. She was the second cousin of Edmund’s father’s brother.” There are people who can do the same thing with elephants – they know them that personally and that well. Amazing.


  1. You do surprise us with your varied choice of topics! I’m wondering what enticed you to stop at Hugo after passing it by previously. Elephants have not been a part of my everyday, so I was interested and bemused to read of your travels and to follow your links.

    1. NumberWise,

      Well, here’s the story. Last summer, a group of bloggers joined together for “August in Paris”. They posted about anything related to Paris – art, travel, food, literature. I was going to join in by posting about Paris, Texas. After all, it was named after Paris, France, and has its own Eiffel Tower!

      I never found the time to get up to Paris then, but in the course of researching its history, I ran across mention of Hugo, which is only about 25 miles up the road. It was mentioned over and over as a worthwhile day trip because of the cemetery. I decided on my way back from my aunt’s I’d make time to stop. And so I did.

      As usually happens, I ended up with far more than a few photos from the cemetery, and decided to give the elephants their own post. Now, I’m trying to figure out if I can get back up there for their Christmas parade. Santa arrives atop an elephant, of course!


  2. hmmmm…my small town where I lived for six years in NE Texas used to put on a circus. The town kids who wanted to participate trained all summer and we looked forward to attending the circus event in August just before school starting. As you describe the distances from TX to OK to KS, and the several circuses that found their home in OK, I wonder if any of those circuses influenced this endeavor embraced year after year in our community. I mapquested my small town and found it a straight ~150 miles south and 2.5 hours from Hugo!! I wonder if there was/is a connection.

    1. Georgette,

      One of the most interesting tidbits I found in the course of writing this is a list of circus winter quarters. There have been a lot of circuses around – far more than I ever would have imagined. In the 1920s, there were circuses wintering in Ada, OK, Beaumont, Houston and San Antonio. Even as late as 1975 there were circuses based in Dallas (Hubert Castle), Aransas Pass (Dailey Bros.), and Donna (Fisher Bros.).

      Of course, many of the early “circuses” were little more than a juggler, a clown and a horse. Lo and behold – “dog and pony show” was a legitimate entertainment category at one time!

      We’re so saturated with so-called “entertainment options” these days, we’ve been so encouraged to “consume” entertainment and our enjoyment has become so individualized, we forget what it was like when people made their own entertainment as well as their own groceries, and enjoyed it together as a community.


  3. Now here’s a synchronicity. In reading the beginning of your article, I mistakenly assumed Hugo is in Texas, so I went to The Handbook of Texas Online and did a search for Hugo. I did get a hit for a town, but only one that no longer exists:

    “Hugo was just north of the Comal county line ten miles west of San Marcos in southern Hays County. In the 1800s it was named Purgatory or Purgatory Springs, for a nearby creek and springs. The Purgatory school opened on January 9, 1877, with seventeen students. A Purgatory Springs post office operated from 1890 to 1895, then changed its name to Hugo in 1896. The community, which at one time supported a church and a store as well as the school, declined in the early 1900s. The Hugo post office closed in 1909, and within a few decades the community was abandoned. The 1985 county highway map showed only a cemetery at the site.”

    The synchronicity has to do with the Purgatory Springs mentioned in that brief article. Purgatory Springs Natural Area was the place where I took the photograph of a pearl milkweed vine leaf that appeared in my blog yesterday, the same day this post of yours appeared.

    1. Steve,

      Isn’t it interesting how many towns linger on as nothing more than cemeteries? Poplar Hill, Kansas, where one of my personal “Madonnas of the Trail” ended up, is completely gone now. There’s nothing left but grass, gravestones and gps coordinates.

      I had no idea a Hugo,Texas once existed. I do wonder if the Texas-Hugo name change was grounded in literature, too. Victor Hugo may have been more popular on the frontier than we’ve imagined!

      It would have been just too synchronous for words for each of us to have been visiting our own “Hugo” on the same day, but we nearly made it. You were at Purgatory Springs on the 29th, and I rolled into Circus City, USA, on the 31st.

      Dare I suggest we both were Hugo-nauts?


      1. You may be right about the Texas connection to Victor Hugo. This Hugonaut will add that although English speakers know him almost exclusively as a novelist (Les Misérables, The Hunchback of Notre Dame), in France he’s even more famous as a poet, considered by some the greatest of the 19th century in France. Poetry can’t be translated nearly as easily or effectively as prose can, and that accounts for the difference in the way the two speech communities regard Victor Hugo.

        1. So interesting, about the difficulties of translation generally and the prose/poetry issue specifically. I’d not really thought about that until this past year, and it is fascinating to compare translations of the same poem. They certainly can differ. You may know this little ditty, apparently anonymous:

          Many critics, no defenders,
          translators have but two regrets:
          when we hit, no one remembers,
          when we miss, no one forgets.

  4. (Saw all sorts birds winging overhead this morning and was wondering if the winds were blowing you home)
    How cool to find the elephants! For some reason, I thought the circus wintered in Florida.

    Did this area have worries after Hurricane IKE? It certainly smashed parts of East TX all the way over to Little Rock and beyond – but your path is a little west of that past Nacogdoches?

    Do you remember the documentary about elephant that befriended a stray dog and stood nearby when the dog got hurt – and mourned so when it died. Sigh. They are so much like people.
    A fun post to start the week

    1. phil,

      Many circuses do winter in Florida. As I recall, Ringling Brothers is one of the big ones. Back in the day, they wintered all over the country – New York, Maine, Iowa, Illinois. This is an interesting list to skim.

      I’m sure Hugo was fine post-Ike. We evac’d to Tyler, and caught just the edge with winds of about 75 mph. He started moving NE after Tyler and caught just the very SE corner of Oklahoma, moving almost immediately into Arkansas. If The Kelly-Miller Circus still had been in Mena, Arkansas, they could have had big trouble!

      I missed the documentary – but I can believe it. I’ve always liked elephants, but I really didn’t know much about them until – oh, say a week ago. Did you know the Houston Zoo has an elephant cam? You can see it here.


      1. I love the elephant cam! Oh, with the nice cool weather, it might be time to visit the zoo? It’s changed a lot – that was one nice thing about living inside the loop – you could pop over to see anything without it being a major trek
        AR got hit pretty hard by IKE. They evacuated quite a few people from Galveston Island across the state…and they all got mad because they lost power! There was one animal sanctuary that was taking measure to make sure the large cats didn’t escape in the storm
        I’ll have to find that “dog and elephant friend” for you – it was amazing

    1. Anne,

      Now that’s an interesting conjunction – quirky and touching. I like it, a lot. Now that I think of it, baby elephants are quirky and touching, too – not to mention pretty high on the cute scale! Glad you enjoyed it.

      Actually, there are some things I’m not much interested in – but note the weasel words “not much”. I suppose just about anything can catch my attention. I just don’t write about the things that turn out to bore me. Your comment did remind me of a line from Flannery O’Connor I just quoted elsewhere a few days ago. She said, “The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention.”
      I’ll agree with that.


  5. Elephants! Love them. Love how they remember. Love how you had this experience and you held it out here, for us to do our own remembering and thinking, too. Thank you.

    1. Emily,

      It’s really quite amazing to read the tales of their relationships with one another and with people, and to have so many people confirm those long, long memories. Beyond that, they apparently have a low boredom threshhold. They’re intelligent and clever beyond words, and need stimulation to be happy. Rather like us, now that I think about it!

      At the Circus City Cafe in Hugo, I was having a late lunch and struck up a conversation with a young mother who was there with her kids. She says they still laugh at her son’s response the first time he had an up-close and personal encounter with one of the elephants. The elephant seemed to notice the boy and looked directly at him. Gazing back into that mysterious eye, the boy said, “Look! There’s someone in there!”

      Indeed there is.


  6. Your post recalled to mind the old joke about St. Peter giving a newly deceased person a tour of Heaven, the punch line being when St. Peter says, “Now when we go over the next hill you have to be very quiet. That’s where we keep the [fill in denomination], and they think they’re the only ones here.” You could just as easily substitute Earth for Heaven, two animals for St. Peter and the newbie, and put “Humans” between the brackets. Don’t get me started on humans’ inhumanity to every creature on this earth, including other humans.

    As for the elephants, they have an amazingly complex society, with family groups of related females spending their whole lives together. They communicate with each other over miles using infrasound. I’ve seen footage of am African elephant calf that got stuck in the mud, and not just the mother, but the whole family group anxiously trying to figure out a way to help it get free (they did). I have loved “otunts” since a child.

    Actually that area is a good place to have an elephant sanctuary. It has a comparably warm climate, although it’s not as humid, and it’s relatively flat, which is the kind of topography elephants do best.

    As for the statue of Jesus in cowboy boots — LOL!

    1. WOL,

      I’d forgotten that old joke – always a good one, and I do like your take on it. Humans are wonderful creatures, but it’s indisputable that other creatures’ qualities – their social order, their interactions, their innate qualities – are equally wonderful. I think I came across that video of the mired baby in the course of my “youtube elephant evening”. It was just astonishing.

      One thing I learned while doing research for this post was the depth of the horrors associated with circus animals of every sort in the past. Elephant training, especially, has been fraught with problems. On the other hand, there are plenty of dog and cat owners who inflict their own kind of horror. The nature of the human interacting with the elephant is of critical importance. The good news is that, despite the very real and sometimes heated arguments among elephant advocates about the best way to move forward, changes are taking place.

      Now, I’m going to have to get back to Paris. What’s not to love about a town that has both a booted Jesus and an Eiffel Tower topped by a cowboy hat?


  7. I love how passionate everyone is about these elephants – and why shouldn’t they be? We inserted them into our world, now we need to care for them the best way possible. I’ll be intrigued to hear how the therapies go.

    1. The Bug,

      There are so many similarities between the oak-tree moving in our town and moving these elephants to Maine. In each case, there have been arguments about the cost, about the possibility of failure, about the best way to proceed. Still, the decisions to make the moves were made. The tree continues to do well, and I hope the elephants do, too.

      The day may come when elephants no longer perform in circuses, simply because the decline of the circuses themselves won’t allow them to bear the expense of maintaining elephants properly. On the other hand, I think it’s wrong to throw a blanket of condemnation over the circus folk. There are a couple of trainers who have really bad reputations, but there seem to be just as many who love the animals and truly want only the best for them. Just like they say on Facebook – it’s complicated!

      Maybe in the spring I’ll do an update post on the Ghirardi Oak, Rosie and Opal – and who knows what else!


  8. I can’t help it, I just don’t think any truly wild animal should be in the circus, ever. Watching elephants in their natural habitat is amazing – I’m meaning on the TV here, not on safari! – and that should be enough for us. I know the pressure on these is pretty dire too and it’s hard to get motivated about an issue in another continent but maybe that’s where our effort should be directed. It is lovely that these elephants are cared for and loved by dedicated individuals once they are in this situation, but breeding? I remain to be convinced that it’s doing them any favours in the long run – suspect this might be more for people than the elephants.

    Actually, I’m pretty sure wild animals are banned in the circus over here – I seem to remember it was a big issue quite a few years ago (memory fading aagh!) and need to check my facts here, maybe it was so long ago that it’s just become part of culture. I went to see one a few years ago, there were lots of acrobatics, clowning and the most amazing stunts and tricks with a troop of the most beautiful white Arabian horses – it was still a fantastic spectacle and I was glad there were no tigers.

    1. thinkingcowgirl,

      I’ve never been to a circus – only carnivals and fairs, and I don’t remember animals being involved there, apart from the occasional monkey or dog. The great irony is that, after writing this, I’m not sure I’d attend a circus that includes elephants, hippos, big cats and so on. I learned more than I really was comfortable with about past training techniques, and was astonished to discover how many elephant rampages take place around the world on a regular basis. Rampaging elephants aren’t violent by nature, they’re frustrated and angry. Unfortunately, the conditions in which they live often are responsible.

      On the other hand, the work of the zoos and circuses when it comes to breeding is good. The elephants pictured here are Asian, and they’re an endangered species. A World Wildlife Federation page notes that perhaps only 25,600 to 32,750 Asian elephants remain in the wild. Habitat loss is a primary reason for the reduction in their numbers. (For comparison, sites such as that of the Houston zoo note the African elephant population is about 600,000.) I read an excellent and understandable article about the importance of breeding programs in maintaining a healthy gene pool, but I can’t seem to find it now. If I can find it again I’ll link it.

      This was the week I discovered the Houston zoo’s elephants are Asians, too. They have an active breeding program, and some lovely elephant-cams that allow us to keep an eye on what’s happening there. And just for fun, I’ve added a video of the elephants helping out with the opening of their newly-expanded quarters!


      1. Thanks very much, I have reevaluated my no breeding stance! It seems that zoos are doing what they can in the circumstances. It’s the loss of habitat which is pretty alarming reading these pages.

        I have been taken off in a completely different direction in my day, which is the great thing about your posts. And made me lighter in pocket as I felt compelled to donate to WWF! They seem to be doing important work in india and Indonesia to protect these Asian elephants. Honestly, must get on with the chores…the curry is burning…

        And you thought you were just telling a simple story :)

        1. The WWF is one organization I trust – likewise the Nature Conservancy. It’s so great that you contributed – as an old varnisher told me once, we start where we can start, and do what we can do. One of the nicest things in the world is finding a way to be part of a story we’ve enjoyed!

  9. WOW… What a story. Thanks so much for sharing in such a beautiful way. And endless THANKS to those who spent so much of their time, energy, and love to help these most amazing, intelligent, and sentient creatures.

    You really should submit this to Humane Society’s flagship magazine (or another forum). I realize there were groups opposed to the relocation, but as you state — there were issues with her herd, and they moved her with a fellow injured elephant. It’s definitely a story worth spreading, for the sake of these animals whose status is sadly at high risk today.

    1. FeyGirl,

      There are two reasons I’d never submit this for publication. One is that the story’s so well known, and has been for such a long time, this piece wouldn’t add anything. I often find myself the caboose at the end of a very long train, “discovering” things that are new to me, and very, very old for others.

      The other thing is that “groups opposed to the reloction” hardly captures the level of conflict that seems to have taken place. As I wrote elsewhere,

      “I understand this is a hot-button issue for some folks, but I didn’t write the piece to get involved in elephant-care politics.” …I’ve never been to a circus and after researching this, I’m not sure I would go to a circus that has animals as part of their acts. But Rosie and Opal’s story, and the story of Circus City, is a fine one, and I was pleased to tell it. Now, it’s up to Laurita and his Hope Elephants to write the conclusion.”

      One thing’s for sure – bad decisions in the past sometimes mean we have to do the best we can with the results. It seems to me that Carson and Barnes, the Endangered Ark and Jim Laurita are doing just that – and I commend them for it!


      1. There are definitely mixed feelings that arose when I read it as well… I’ve likewise never been to a circus with animals, and am actively opposed to them. ACTIVELY.

        But their story of rescue is heartwarming. I’m really surprised I hadn’t heard of it. Or perhaps I had, heh, just from another perspective.

  10. What a great post. I’ve seen documentaries on elephants and how they form strong bonds. I wonder why they never liked Rosie. I liked her immediately I heard her name. :-)

    Good gracious you’ve never been to a circus? Was that because your parents didn’t like them?

    I keep wondering how on earth someone could do acupuncture on an elephant. The needles would have to be the size of a garden fence post…

    1. rosie,

      They say Rosie’s a really sweet elephant – you’ve got that in common with her, too, along with the name!

      No, there wasn’t any dislike of circuses on the part of my folks. At least, I don’t think so. But the closest a circus ever came was Des Moines, about 40 miles away. Back in the day, that seemed a long, long way to go for an evening’s entertainment. It’s possible money played a role, too. I just don’t know.

      But we had carnivals in our town every year, and we went to those. There were games (softball throws, fishing for plastic fish), rides, and quirky sideshows. I don’t remember much, but I do remember the kewpie dolls, a big stuffed dog my dad won for me, and glass bead necklaces. And cotton candy. ;)

      Here’s something I didn’t know until I wrote this – elephants are terrifically sensitive around their feet, legs, ears, belly. That’s why the bullhooks can inflict such pain. It seems that acupuncture might work beautifully, just because they are so sensitive and apparently their skin isn’t as impenetrable as it seems.

      One thing’s for sure – elephants can penetrate human hearts. Here’s one of our Houston elephant babies, just two weeks old, being introduced to a wading pool!


  11. Elephants in Hugo remind me of a conversation in Toronto. My cousin Roy of blessed memory had been on a safari through vast preserves in East Africa. The animals roamed free, and did whatever they thought best. The people stopped each night to eat and sleep in large tents on platforms set inside sturdy “cages.” One day their group traveled down a river, arriving later than usual at their destination. Suddenly an elephant emerged out of the sunset, made a feint in their direction, spread its ears to best effect and trumpeted as they floated by in perfect awe. Roy said he was pretty sure he was about to die, and thought it would be a good trade for the privilege of seeing that elephant. He told the story much better than I can, and the image of the elephant stays with me twenty years later. So much world, so little time.

    1. Gerry,

      What a wonderful tale, and a wonderful memory for your cousin. Plan and plot as we will, some of the best moments of life are utterly unpredictable. I can only imagine what it would be like to see an African elephant in the wild – especially a spread-eared trumpeter!

      The beauty of it all is that we can imagine it, of course. Roy tells you, you tell me, we mention it here and who knows what other readers will “see” that marvelous creature, living free and managing its life perfectly well.

      So much world, so little time, indeed. But we do manage to see a good bit, even in our little corners. If we’re lucky, we fit into the landscape as nicely as Roy’s elephant.

      By the way – his comment about willingly trading death for the sight of the elephant reminds me of a project I really am attracted to – the “Before I Die” Project. It looks to me like something that might find a home up in your neck of the woods.


  12. A wonderful post. Here in Edmonton, which is extremely snowy at the moment, we have Lucy the elephant at our Storyland Valley Zoo. She has been the center of much controversy for the past few years. Bob Barker and a whole slough of entertainers have jumped on the save Lucy bandwagon, though from our perspective she seems quite happy and content in her home in Canada.

    Personally, I don’t see the point in moving her at this stage in her life — I think separating her from the people who have loved and cared for her all her life would be very traumatic. But, who knows? Perhaps she remembers a time when she was part of a herd and longs to be reunited. In the end bureaucracy will determine her fate.

    1. klrs09,

      I’ve just read a few articles about Lucy, and the court cases associated with her. I see that Bob Barker and others have been making Canadian-held elephants in general their “cause”. They have a right to do that, of course, but I don’t usually take my politics from Honey Boo-boo, my lifestyle advice from Cher or elephant advice from a game show host. ;)

      Clearly, Lucy is in the same situation as Rosie and Opal – she needs good care, and people who care about her. In a perfect world, she might not have ended up in Edmonton, but there she is. As you say, moving her now might be more traumatic than allowing her to stay in familiar surroundings.

      In any event, I hope you enjoyed the post as much as I enjoyed learning about Lucy. I hope a good resolution’s reach for her situation, too!


  13. I think you’ve doubled my knowledge of elephants in this post, Linda ;-) The rehab facilities for the injured animals in Maine sound amazing. It’d be something to see the therapy sessions. I hope Opal and Rosie thrive in their new environment.

    1. nikki,

      I certainly know more about elephants than I did two weeks ago! They’re such marvelous creatures – I’ve spent way too much time watching them on youtube!

      Like you, I hope all goes well with the rehab in Maine. Here’s another tidbit I picked up that you might be interested in. At the Houston Zoo, there’s a dog who’s involved in elephant training. He spends free time with them, but when it’s time to teach a new trick, the trainers teach the dog first! You can see him here, hanging out with his friends!


  14. There are so many revelations in this piece, not the least of which is the existence of a 60-foot-long underwater treadmill.

    Elephants are such wonderful and intelligent animals. I’ve always admired them. I agree with montucky. It’s good to know that so many are involved in improving their lives and are willing to go to such lengths.

    That reference to Buster Brown shoes brought back some memories. I used to wear them. I’m pretty sure I remember a pair of black and white saddle shoes. Golly gosh.

    1. Bella Rum,

      I had those Buster Brown shoes, too. Remember Poll Parrot? That company’s transmogrified into a furniture company, thanks to mergers and acquisitions. And of course there were the fluoroscopes – I always loved looking at that green x-ray of my feet!

      I can’t wait for the inevitable photos of the rehab process. I hope we do get a peek at the treadmill. Elephant therapy’s complicated, for sure. They have to be comfortable and willing to do what’s required – stand still, lift foot, etc. – and that requires training, too. I’ll bet their trainers and caregivers are among the most patient people in the world. Well, at least the good ones. (There’s another cross-species similarity!)


  15. “When Rosie met Jim Laurita again after an absence of so many years, she remembered her former handler.” So the old saying in this case is true, then? A wonderful story, and, as always, well told. I like so much how you followed the trails of this, and you certainly found gold! (That arch with the elephants for some reason is reminding me of the arch at Breaux Bridge–really not similar, about as similar as crawfish to elephants. The mind–or at least mine–works in mysterious ways.)

    1. Susan,

      I think the old saying is generally true! One of the things that makes elephants so eminently trainable is their memory. Beyond that, I’ve learned they’re curious, intelligent and up for a good challenge. Providing enrichment for them – games, puzzles, problems to solve – is as important as keeping a nice stash of hay and veggies around.

      That arch does bear some resemblance to the great crawfish – but after a ramble through Kansas and Oklahoma, I see it more as a ranch gate. It was quite amazing to see the variety of arches – there were foxes, horses, buffalo and trailriders above those gates. By the time I figured out how many there were, and how much variety, I missed photos of most. Well, next time. If I remember!


  16. Even though the plight of many animals in captivity can be heartwrenching, I like to think that there are those whose aim is education in a caring way who give purpose to this. I know it is hard to support keeping a wild creature captive in exchange for even education. And yet, I do believe that you can’t care about something which you’ve never been exposed to in any kind of face to face way. It might as well be a picture of a dinosaur for all the theoretical learing you might get from a book. I offer no justification for cruelty or unkind caging, only that we learn from these stories, what not to repeat and that these lessons will make us really care what we have to lose in the wild if we are not good custodians of what has been entrusted to us.

    Elephants are special in many ways for their longevity, intelligence, loyalty and the way they channel the evocative African wilderness. They are beautiful and mysterious. It is easy to understand why people hunger to see them and why people want to protect them..from unkind treatment and from criminal poaching for their tusks. Lets just learn and do much better!!

    Thank you for a thought provoking post!!

    Oh, my husband is Raymond…he almost had a town with his name it seems!!

    1. Judy,

      I just added a link at the bottom of the post to a 1999 article in “The Guardian” about the disappearance of circuses in Britain. It’s rather sad, as they actually had their start in that country. In any event, it’s a good discussion, with the issues well laid out and a reasonable and sympathetic view of circus people. Unlike what some groups would have you think, they’re not ogres.

      I think you’re right – learning about something and caring about something are quite different. We don’t learn about music by reading about it – we listen. We don’t develop a love of art by attending lectures. We go to museums or galleries. We may think dogs or cats are cute, but we begin to understand them by living with them. Of course it’s the same with these marvelous animals. It’s been nearly 30 years, but I still remember every detail of being introduced to a baby elephant and having him try to nab a piece of candy in my shirt pocket with his trunk!

      The truth is that, even if we allowed all these marvelous creatures to roam freely, they can’t defend against the poachers and habitat-destroyers on their own. They need us as much as we need them. And as one of the zookeepers here in Houston notes, proper captivity can provide them a perfectly satisfactory life. With space, enriching activities, good physical care and loving keepers, they thrive.


  17. Who’d have thought your travels would bring you to a close encounter with elephants. I know nothing about them, in U.S. or Canada, or whether they would have adapted to Canadian weather. Well, I know it’s very hard for humans to adapt to the elements here above the 49th parallel. With snow in mid Oct. this year, for sure I know I still haven’t acclimatized after decades of living here.

    1. Arti,

      A simple little search to see if Calgary has elephants opened up a whole new trunkful of issues. The decision has been made to move your elephants (one bull, three females) to other locations over the next four or five years. The primary reason is space. Because the zoo is located on an island, it can’t expand to allow for herd enlargement.

      In the process of learning about that, I discovered the Toronto Zoo has recently lost their accreditation from the AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) because of their decision to send their elephants to the PAWS sanctuary in California. As it turns out, there has been tuberculosis reported in both sanctuaries in the U.S. (common among elephants, apparently) and they might not be the best choice. Beyond that, the Toronto City Council has gotten into it with the zoo administrators, and…. Well, you get the picture.

      The irony is that Rosie and Opal may be as well off in Maine as in the sanctuaries, despite the weather. I wonder if they put blankets on them, like they do with horses? Another question. I’m sure you’re keeping your sweaters and hats and gloves and such close at hand – I wish I could send you some of our still-lovely weather!


    1. under the skies,

      I probably could – if I took a lot of photos! I tend to take only those that I think might be able to help illustrate my writing. But I do enjoy it!

      Thanks for stopping by – I have a cousin who is living in Mena now, and he says it’s just beautiful there.


  18. I am in the process of finalising a strange opinion, Linda. If animals are to be with humans, both will have to give up a little. Just a little, though, not a lot. When I saw the picture of the elephants running about (looking happy) in snow, my first thought was about what the cold must do to them. But if there is no other way, no other place, why not? You often make me think more than I want to!

    1. Priya,

      The funny thing about that snow is that it isn’t in Canada, but in Hugo! They do have snow now and then, but it rarely hangs on for long. Within a few days, the elephants in that photo might have been frolicking on dry ground again.

      On the other hand, look at this video from Ontario, showing their animals in the snow. It surely seems as though the elephants love their snow time – as long as they get to go back inside, warm up and have a hot cup of cocoa. (Well, maybe not the cocoa!)


  19. As always, Linda, another post that simply captivates! I must tell Rick about Hugo, since Victor is his hero! I love your photos of the elephants — they are such amazing animals. You know, wherever you travel, you find the most interesting things — I think that’s because you are curious, you see things differently. I’m so glad you do!

    1. jeanie,

      Well, there’s another reason for Rick to like Paris! I didn’t realize he was a Hugo fan – I’ll bet he didn’t know there was an Oklahoma town named for his hero!

      I’ve learned so much about elephants of late. I’ve always liked them – remember? My Aunt T who resembled Julia Child did give me that china elephant bank! – but I haven’t known a lot about them. Like so many creatures, loss of habitat is one of the greatest threats to them – along with poachers. Perhaps some of these organizations, and yes, even the circuses, can help to keep them healthy and multiplying while we deal with the other problems.

      There’s so much to see, everywhere. You go off to Paris, France, and I go to Paris, Texas! They’re different experiences, to be sure, but both can be enjoyable!


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