by Jodie Linton-Prickett
If you wake up early on a Saturday morning and load the family into the car, in just over two hours you will arrive in Hugo, Oklahoma. Over the years, I have been close to Hugo, around Hugo and even through Hugo, with never a desire to stop in this tired little town. However, it holds a secret that is worth discovering.
The Endangered Ark Foundation, an Asian elephant retirement ranch, is located just outside the center of town. Founded in 1993 by D.R. and Isla Miller, the ranch is a sanctuary for retired circus elephants. The couple spent over six decades working with, caring for and living with their Asian elephants, as well as other animals. The Endangered Ark Foundation is a private non-profit with a mission of ensuring the future of the highly endangered Asian elephants living in North America. They not only offer excellent care and plenty of space for these magnificent creatures to roam, but also educate the public about the species.
Because the elephants are in retirement, the ranch is only open to the public for one expedition a week on Saturday mornings at 10:00. This is the time best suited for the elephants and the caregivers. The educational tour lasts a little over one hour. To start the tour, you meet at the main gate. For the tour, there is a choice of an open seated safari style wagon or a wagon with bales of hay to ride on. Once the gates are open, you ride through the ranch with stops along the way. Your host and caregivers explain the needs of these lovely giants. There are also demonstrations of foot care and hygiene for elephants. While the excursion is usually sold out each Saturday, there are not a lot of spaces, making the tour feel intimate with plenty of time to ask questions and receive very informative answers. You can feel the mutual love and respect between the elephants and their human caregivers. The Endangered Ark Foundation only recently started opening their gates to the public for educational reasons and to offset the $35,000 annual upkeep per elephant, so the tour is still in its infancy. They are working out the kinks of ticket purchases and their GPS location. During our visit, Siri took us to a nearby city park instead of the meeting gate. Fortunately, the office answered the phone immediately and directed us where we needed to go. So, if you decide to make the trip, allow some extra time in case you encounter a similar problem.
The staff are helpful, friendly and enthusiastic making the journey through the ranch unforgettable. At the end of the tour, you go out to the field and each person has the opportunity to hand feed one of the retired elephants. During this time, you can gently pet their long amazing trunk and have a remarkable one-on-one experience. During our trip, there was an elderly lady seated behind us who was physically limited, making it impossible for her to navigate the uneven grass grown field. We offered to assist her daughter in getting her over to the elephants, but the elderly woman declined. I felt incredibly heartbroken for her to miss out on such an extraordinary experience. However, the staff was not going to let her leave without having the opportunity that everyone else received. They gently brought out Susie, the Matriarch, who is 65 years old over to the cart to let the lady pet and feed her. This made the entire experience all the more heartwarming.
There is also a children’s book, The Great Elephant Escape, by Una Belle Townsend, about two of the elephants, Lillie and Isla, who now reside at the Endangered Ark. Our tour was comprised of people of all ages and ethnicities. Most drove in that morning from the larger DFW area, Oklahoma City, Tulsa and several little towns in between. One thing we all had in common was a deep adoration for these beautiful animals.
After the tour, you can go back by the main office and purchase a souvenir T-Shirt with elephant facts on the back. All of the proceeds from the admission tickets and the T-shirts go to the Endangered Ark Foundation.
If you would still like to spend more time in the Hugo area after you are finished visiting the Endangered Ark, there are a handful of locally owned restaurants and a few fast food options to grab lunch before either going to the Hugo Lake State Park or the area cemetery. Yes, you read that right! Hugo, due to its mild climate, became a winter location for several circuses in the 1930’s. Over the years, Hugo has been the home of more than 20 different circuses, and today Carson and Barns, as well as the Kelly Miller Circus, are still based there. Due to the circus population, the local cemetery, Mt. Olivet, has reserved a spot for circus performers, owners and rodeo clowns called the Showman’s Rest. This portion of the cemetery is lined with posts topped with elephants and many of the tombstones are quite remarkable. It is worth a stop for a quiet visit if you are already in the area.
Hugo Lake State Park is another nice place to spend the rest of the afternoon or even the night. They have quaint little resort cabins all the way up to luxury cabins available to rent, or you can pitch a tent and get back to nature with hiking trails and fishing.
To some people just the word circus can be off-putting. I cannot honestly sort out my feelings about the circus. As a child, you innocently see the circus only for the show with no perception of what goes on behind the scenes, so the circus only reveals its magic and splendor. Being a young child in the 70’s, the circus coming to town was a big event; the parade with the animals marching through downtown, the big top and the fantastic show, and most of all the elephants. As an adult, I am conflicted, mostly due to contrast of the dreamlike memories from my youth and my understanding of the reality as an adult.
In a perfect world, elephants should live free in the wild in their natural habitat, however, the dangers there are also very real and extreme. As Jen Samuel once said, “When children learn their ‘A, B, Cs’ they learn that ‘E’ is for elephant. We don’t want them to learn ‘E’ is for extinction.” In the wild, at the beginning of the 20th century approximately 100,000 Asian Elephants roamed their part of the planet, but by 2004 the count had dropped to about 35,000. Places like the Endangered Ark are valuable for the preservation of these phenomenal animals.
No matter how I feel about circuses, at the end of the day, our family has an amazing adoration for elephants. To have the opportunity to engage with these lovely animals, while contributing to their care, make the trip to the tranquil town of Hugo very worthwhile. For more information please visit EndangeredArkFoundation.org.