Ringling circus, animals possess age-old appeal

07/31/2014 2:19 PM

07/31/2014 2:21 PM

Ringling Bros. animal trainer Cathy Carden has a simple message for anyone interested in protesting the circus coming to Intrust Bank Arena next week: “Come see for yourself.”

“You’ll see these animals are confident, they have shiny coats, they’re slightly overweight …when you see a fat, shiny horse, that’s a happy, well-treated animal,” Carden said. “They’re not actors. They can’t lie; they’re just presenting their condition.”

And Carden should know; she’s been working with her animals for 15 years now. She said the circus’ stop in Wichita from Thursday to Sunday will be yet another chance for her animals to do what they love: performing – and being treated with some juicy hot dogs.

“Some people like to perform without actual treats onstage, maybe because it’s more elegant not to be shoving food in your animals’ mouths while performing, but I always like to treat on stage because they like it,” Carden said. “What’s the harm in it?”

Carden, a seventh-generation performer, said she traces her circus roots to the 1600s, when her family ran a traveling menagerie in Hanneford, England.

“I’ve always had a fierce love of animals; my mom instilled that in me,” she said. “She was one of those people who stopped traffic so baby ducks could cross the road. Every cat in the neighborhood seemed to live at our house, and she wasn’t even an animal person; she was a trapeze artist.”

As per circus tradition, she brings her elephants along for the ride. Carden said Ringling Bros. contracted her to create a show using entirely her own animals, and she has been working with the company for years. She puts on 46 shows a year across the United States from Christmas to the following November, she said, and all of the animals in the show have been in her care for a long time.

“The elephants don’t like to split up; they’re a very family-oriented animal,” Carden said. “In the future we’ll probably use baby elephants that are coming with a mom or family member, rather than break up the units that have been there.”

Officially the circus does not begin until Thursday, but for organizers the circus starts Monday. The circus rolls into town – by truck and trailer – and the animal stables are the first thing to be set up.

“The elephants can’t sit in a trailer,” Carden said.

She exercises and rehearses with the animals for a few days until they become actors, though in reality the scope of their “acting” is limited, she said.

“They’re free spirits; they’re going to do what want,” Carden said. “You have to just work with their personalities and around their little quirks.”

One of Carden’s specialties, she said, is the dog and pony show, where her pups ride astride the ponies and do tricks. Her breeds of choice are rat terriers and various mutts that are rescued from “kill shelters,” she said.

“My best dogs, I think, are the ones that came from the pound and really needed a home; they have the enthusiasm for it,” Carden said. “I like dogs that have a big personality. I don’t mind dogs without manners.”

In a world where iPads and Netflix comprise a majority of young people’s entertainment, Carden said the circus still has value. There’s just something about the spectacle of it all, she said, that makes it suitable both for a family night out or a creative “date night.”

“You can take your itty-bitty kids to the circus without worrying about something inappropriate happening,” Carden said. “Maybe a little poop; that’s about the biggest thing. Poop happens at the circus, but the kids think it’s hilarious.”

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