Girls on Wheels Under the Big Top

Elephants embracing newfound friends.

Vicki Baker

Elephants don’t usually come to mind when thinking of Oklahoma wildlife. We imagine buffalo, deer, and cattle, but the Sooner State is home to the second largest herd of Asian elephants in America. Girls on Wheels (Cassie Richardson, Karen DiPietro, Susan Hebert, Vicki Baker, and Nancy Burns) hit the road in search of this hidden sanctuary located in Hugo, Okla., better known as Circus City, USA.

Long known to be a winter haven for circus performers, Hugo is also home to the Endangered Ark Foundation, a private non-profit dedicated to conservation, education, and preservation of endangered Asian elephants, and operates as a circus elephant retirement village. Founded decades ago, to care for these gentle giants, the facility opened to the public in 2017 offering intimate elephant encounters.

Our day began with an interactive educational demonstration on caring for elephants and the Ark elephant residents. Spotlighting two adult females, we learned elephants consume more than 150 pounds of food a day, their trunks contain more than 100,000 muscles, a mother carries a baby for 22 months before birth, they have a dexterous finger at the end of their trunks that aids in picking up food, they sweat only through their toenails, and they can swim many miles using their trunk as a snorkel!

We then moved down to the woods where the elephants are rotated between pastures and a wooded area with a creek where they explore and enjoy being in a more natural habitat. Here, we watched them play, fed the elephants bananas, and even took elephant selfies. As the tour concluded, we walked away on a high, feeling so exhilarated and in awe of these fabulous, intelligent creatures.

Our next stop was lunch at the quirky Angie’s Circus City Diner. An ode to Hugo’s unique history, the weirdly wonderful diner, serving up a variety of classic Oklahoma cuisine, was brimming with circus-related memorabilia from figurines in all shapes and sizes, to vintage signage and posters covering the walls. Our meal was as memorable as it was satisfying.

The spirit of the circus may be most visibly alive in the Mount Olivet Cemetery, where the memories of circus performers are joyfully celebrated in their final resting place. Girls on Wheels strolled reverently through the “Showmen’s Rest” section bordered by sculpted elephants on granite pedestals. Grave sites were colorfully designed to hold tribute to “all showmen under God’s big top,” from animal trainers to jugglers to high wire artists.

For Girls on Wheels, the enchantment of the circus was still alive and breathing in Hugo, with trapeze swings set up in front yards, circus trailers parked alongside pickup trucks, good food served by good folks in an off-the-wall diner, circus performers captured in granite at the cemetery, and a herd of elephants always roaming at the Endangered Ark Foundation. Girls on Wheels under the Big Top—definitely our happy place for a day!