Where the Elephants Roam

by Richard Higgs


Susie, who was weed-eating along the sanctuary fence line, recognized Barbara Miller Byrd’s SUV when Byrd and her visitors from Tulsa pulled into the sanctuary. She strode purposefully across the yard to meet them.

Susie, whose age is vaguely “early 60s,” is semi-retired. After nearly 60 years in show business, on tour up to eight months a year, she’s earned her leisure. She has her aches and pains—that comes with age—but she still has her health, and she still has her teeth. Her fourth set. She still works the occasional Indian wedding, bedecked and bejeweled, but otherwise her time is her own.

Susie is an Asian elephant born in the wild, somewhere in South Asia, sometime in the early ‘50s. The record isn’t clear. She is the oldest resident at Hugo’s Endangered Ark elephant sanctuary, a nonprofit foundation created in 1993 by Byrd’s parents, D. R. and Isla Miller, then owners of the Carson and Barnes Circus. Byrd is currently vice president of the circus, and on the board of Endangered Ark. The sanctuary is home to the second-largest Asian elephant herd in North America, currently numbered at 26, according to Byrd. As Byrd and her visitors exited the vehicle, Susie approached them with her trunk extended in the manner of a man eager to shake hands. Ben Hutchinson, Susie’s soft- spoken handler for the last 17 years, also walked over to say hello.

Byrd, who knew what Susie was after, opened the hatch, pulled out a basket of apples, and held one out. Susie grabbed it with the end of her trunk, deposited it into her mouth, and reached out for another. Everyone took turns feeding apples to Susie. Once the apples were all gone, Susie quickly lost interest in her visitors and returned to feeding on the tall grass near the fence.

The trunk of Elephas maximus is one of the more amazing appendages in the animal kingdom. At the tip is a small, prehensile finger-like projection with which, Hutchinson assured the visitors, Susie can pick up a dime. These elephants can also lift hundreds of pounds with their trunks, making them useful work animals in the forests of South Asia. They use their trunks to pull branches from trees and grasses from the ground, of which they consume about 300 pounds each per day. They use their trunks to breathe, to drink, to smell, and to caress each other. They use their trunks to spray water and dust over their backs. And if someone should offer a peanut to Susie, “she’s liable to throw it back at you,” Byrd said. “Susie may be the only elephant in the world who hates peanuts.” Ben nodded his head, smiling shyly in agreement.

As Byrd and her visitors exited the vehicle, Susie approached them with her trunk extended in the manner of a man eager to shake hands.

Susie was spirited in her youth. Jack Moore (a previous owner of Carson and Barnes) acquired Susie in 1957. Wanda Moore, Jack’s daughter, recently reminisced about Susie with Buckles Woodcock, Susie’s former trainer, on Woodcock’s blog (bucklesw.blogspot. com). “Susie behaved like a spoiled child,” Moore recalled. “Mabel adopted her and protected her from Jenny…the mentally retarded one.” Mabel and Jenny were other elephants. Moore remembered an incident: “One day, a small boy pushed his bike too close to Susie, and she reached out, took the bike and smashed it several times on the ground…the poor boy cried… Daddy paid the bill. Shipley and I performed with Mabel, Jenny, and Susie for a long time. I have some great memories.”

Carson and Barnes sometimes lease their elephants out to other circuses. On July 11, 2007, Susie and her mates, Bunny and Minny, were on tour with the Garden Bros. Circus, which was setting up in Newmarket, Ontario. During the night, the girls discovered that their electric fence enclosure had lost power. Some clown had apparently tripped over an extension cord. Escape may be too strong a word for what happened next. Susie wandered just far enough off the grounds to make a statement and then contented herself with loafing around, sampling the greener grass. Bunny was spotted by a local driver as she strolled down a Newmarket sidewalk sometime after 2:30 a.m. Local law enforcement was alerted, and her trainer was rousted from bed to fetch her. When he caught up with her, Bunny was nonchalantly eating a tree. He called her name, and she followed him back to the enclosure without further incident.

Come morning, when local resident Shu Mei stepped outside her front door, she saw that a tree in her front yard had been eaten and her lilies trampled. Something smelled “not good,” she recalled for the local newspaper. That something was Bunny’s calling card—a pile of elephant poop on Shu Mei’s front lawn. Garden Bros. sent someone to retrieve the poop, fluff up the lilies as best they could,
and give Shu Mei free tickets to that evening’s performance.

Minny had fallen asleep before she’d made it off the circus grounds.

Perhaps the most famous elephant escape in America occurred in 1975 in Hugo, Oklahoma. Dixie Loter, a driver for Carson and Barnes, was transporting five baby elephants from Minnesota to Texas, en route to Mexico, when she pulled in for a stopover at the winter headquarters in Hugo. Just as she’d unloaded the elephants, a worker nearby dropped a load of pipes. The clang and clatter of the pipes caused the elephants to stampede. They escaped the compound and fled into the surrounding forest.

Three of them were quickly recovered, but for the next 18 days, two elephants ran wild in the Oklahoma Cross Timbers and savanna, perhaps for the first time since the Pleistocene. Their names were Isa and Lily. Newspapers far and wide reported on their escape and the ensuing elephant hunt. The New York Times dispatched a reporter to the scene. Sports Illustrated even ran a story that strained for humor by portraying the local citizenry as a bunch of dimwitted hayseeds who couldn’t find something as big as an elephant in their own backyard. The incident also inspired the children’s book The Great Elephant Escape, by Una Belle Townsend.

Asian elephants have been domesticated for thousands of years. The earliest indications of this are the engravings on seals of the Indus valley civilization, dating as far back to the third millennium B.C., according to R. Sukumar in his book The Asian Elephant: Ecology and Management. Asian elephants are smaller than the African variety, and they have relatively smaller ears, among other differences.

They are classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as “endangered” due to “habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation.” The World Wildlife Fund estimates their population at the start of the 20th century at over 100,000, and their current population between 25,600 and 32,750. Byrd describes the mission of the Endangered Ark elephant sanctuary as an effort to ensure the future of the Asian elephant in North America, to have a place for retired elephants, and to raise pubic awareness of this endangered species by letting the public see them up close and personal.

They also have a breeding program at the Ark, although successful breeding of captive Asian elephants is difficult. Byrd reports that the Endangered Ark has had four successful live births since the sanctuary opened.

The affection and mutual bonding between the Carson and Barnes elephants and their handlers is evident to visitors. Nevertheless, Carson and Barnes, like every circus, is sometimes criticized by animal-rights activists who believe that the training and performance routines of elephants and other animals is inherently cruel, and should be stopped. A visitor asked Byrd how she answers this criticism. She said:

I invite people out to see. You can tell an abused animal when you see it. When we’re touring with the circus we don’t hide behind curtains or anything, they [the public] can see them unloaded, they can see them fed, they can see them bathed—the public is welcome to see all of that.

I cannot change their minds. I can invite them out, I can show them, and I can talk to them. We’ve never violated the animal welfare act.

Activists are kind of like unions. In their beginning they probably served a good purpose, because there probably were people who needed to be out of the business, but those people are long gone.

She adds that the circus works closely with a local veterinarian in Hugo, and a veterinarian at the Tulsa Zoo to monitor and maintain the animals’ health.

When Barbara Miller Byrd talks about the circus, she is talking about family.

When Barbara Miller Byrd talks about the circus, she’s talking about family. Byrd’s grandfather, Obert Miller, started the family’s traveling show-business tradition with a literal dog and pony show in Smith Center, Kansas, in the early 1920s. His sons Kelly and Dores, or, as he preferred, D.R., joined the show in 1937. They named their circus The Al G. Kelly and Miller Brothers Circus, rather than just Miller Brothers, to avoid confusion with the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West Show, which was headquartered near Ponca City, Oklahoma. In 1940 they acquired their first elephant.

The Millers first wintered over in Hugo in 1941–42. By 1949, the circus had grown so large that they used a fleet of 33 trucks to carry the circus from town to town. The menagerie by then included elephants, giraffes, hippos, rhinos, chimps, camels, polar bears, lions, and more. In 1958, Kelly Miller sold his share of the business to his brother, Barbara’s father, D.R. Miller. D.R. and his wife, Isla, acquired Carson and Barnes from their partner, Jack Moore, in 1965, as Byrd recalls, and adopted that name.

Byrd performed as a tightrope walker in her parents’ show from childhood until she went to OU, where she earned a degree in business management. She and her husband Geary own and manage the circus today. Their daughters Tracy and Kristin, along with their spouses, Julio and Gustavo, also fill various managerial functions.

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Showmen’s Rest is a special section of Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Hugo, bordered by a series of carved elephants on pedestals. A large granite monument just inside its perimeter proclaims it “A Tribute to All Showmen Under God’s Big Top.” When Kelly Miller died in 1960, his brother D.R. created Showmen’s Rest as a final resting place for Kelly and others circus folk. Some of those buried there were bonded by blood, but all were bonded by the shared travels, and travails, of the showman’s life. Their specialized monuments are shaped like circus tents, wagon wheels, and other circus imagery. Obert, D.R., and Isla Miller are buried at Showmen’s Rest along with Kelly and his wife, Dale. So is Jack Moore, founder of Carson and Barnes, and so are dozens of others—clowns, impresarios, lion tamers, elephant handlers, tightrope walkers, trapeze artists, and more.

After a short walk together among the monuments, in the gathering heat of a summer afternoon, Byrd and her visitors parted company. Standing there among family, she watched them pull out of the cemetery for their long drive back to Tulsa.

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4 Issue 19. Oct. 1, 2013.