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.
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.”