Big Top in the Wild West
Reprinted with permission from the May 9, 2012 issue of the Pagosa Daily Post.
by Bill Hudson
“We’re not sure about going to the circus with you,” my daughter Ursala told me over the phone. “There’s going to be animal rights activists demonstrating there. We’re not sure we want to walk past them.”
Wednesday morning, the Carson & Barnes Circus had finished erecting their “big top” tent — a very BIG “big top” from what I could tell — and one of their publicists, Marcus Vela, had mailed a package of complimentary tickets to the Daily Post, in thanks for our publication’s help “heralding into the Great City of Pagosa Springs the One & Only Carson & Barnes Circus.”
“I hope you can enjoy the afternoon under the Big Top with us in Pagosa Springs,” Mr. Vela had told me in his hand-written note. “This year’s show is Mustard, Pure Magic & World-Class.”
I wasn’t familiar with the term, “Mustard.” I assume the meaning is related to the slang idiom, “cut the mustard: to reach or surpass the desired standard of performance.”
The Carson & Barnes Big Top Circus, set up in the travertine-based meadow south of the Springs Resort, Wednesday, May 9. The Reservoir Hill wilderness park is in the background.
My daughter Lily was in town, visiting from Alaska with her daughter Betty and newborn son Louis; they were staying with Ursala and her husband Chris and their daughter Amélie. I had enough tickets for everyone to attended the 4:30 show. We had no other plans for the day. The circus tent was up, and the performers and animal handlers were getting their costumes and equipment ready for two shows on Wednesday afternoon and evening. There was excitement in the air.
But then — we had those darned animal rights activists.
Four of the animal rights activists who were demonstrating on Hot Springs Boulevard yesterday afternoon.
Yes, the Carson & Barnes Circus had brought three elephants, trained to rotate in slow, choreographed circles atop pedestals. while attractive blonds dressed in sexy cowboy outfits sat on their necks. Yes, they had brought dogs that walked on their hind legs, and rode in the backs of ponies, and jumped off high ladders. They had brought along two single-humped camels and allowed children and adults to ride them in the grassy meadow next to Bank of the San Juans. They’d brought a veritable petting zoo of animals — llamas, miniature goats, a small buffalo-type animal that I didn’t recognize.
Yes, these animals were traveling across America in trailers, and were made to perform for audiences in small towns and large cities. One could certainly make the case — if one were a concerned, caring human being who, for example, never ate the cooked flesh of animals — that these non-human performers were being “abused” by being forced to participate in the Carson & Barnes Circus.
But this is the Wild West, folks. Here in Pagosa Springs, we see penned-up animals — caged animals, even — every day in our neighbors’ yards. We watch cattle grazing in fenced fields, oblivious to the fact that they are destined for the slaughterhouse in a few months. Often, we see teenage girls riding on the backs of horses, heading down a county road. We see dogs who spend all day, every day, on construction sites, living in the backs of pickup trucks.
Some of these animals are our loving friends; they are our companions and helpers — our therapists, even, on occasion. Some of these animals are bound to wind up on our dinner tables, as sustenance.
How does one draw a line between “animals who help put food on our tables” and “animals who are abused”?
As it turned out, the lure of the circus was too potent for Ursala and Lily, and at the last minute, we packed up the kids into the car seats and headed across town to the big top tent. Hot Springs Boulevard was bustling with vehicles and families — and, yes, with a few animal rights activists.
“Let’s cut across the field,” Ursala proposed, as we unloaded the family out of the van — near a small group of concerned humans holding BOYCOTT THE CIRCUS placards. “I know that person, and I don’t want him to see me going in.”
My family, posing outside the entrance to the Carson & Barnes big top.
Inside the tent — the very BIG tent — hundreds of families were already seated on metal bleachers, and on folding chairs set out on the grass. In the center of the tent was a single ring, and shortly after we sat down, the Comedian strolled into the ring to announce the ground rules: no videotaping, etc.
I call him “the Comedian” because he was not exactly “a Clown”. He went by the name “Alex”, and although he wore brightly striped clothing and did broad physical comedy like a Clown, he didn’t wear the typical white-mime-face make-up, or a red nose. To be honest, I always found Clowns to be slightly scary when I was a child. Alex the Comedian was not scary. He was funny and very professional.
Indeed, the entire show was very professional, and it consisted almost entirely of — not abused, mistreated animals — but of expertly trained, beautifully costumed human beings performing thoroughly entertaining circus acts, from riding a motorcycle atop a tightrope, to amazing feats of physical dexterity, to the flying trapeze finale.
Publicist Marcus Vela had not been exaggerating; the show was world-class. It was “mustard.”
During the 20-minute intermission, spectators were invited to purchase tickets for a short ride on the back of an elephant, and dozens of children and adults took advantage of the opportunity. My family and I stood ringside, watching two huge, gentle pachyderms lumber slowly around the ring with their loads of giggling humans. Did the elephants look weary or unhappy? I can’t tell you. I’ve never seen an elephant “in the wild.” Yes, the elephants were working; and the human trainers at their sides seemed, from what I could tell, to be treating them gently and with respect. Of course, the trainers were also “working.” It was the audience that was enjoying itself.
As we left the tent at the end of the show, a huge crowd had formed a long line at the entrance, waiting for the 7:30 show. I passed several friends on the way out, and they asked how I’d liked the show.
“Great show,” I told them. “You’ll really enjoy it.”
As we packed the kids into the van, I felt like I’d just had a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We don’t often get to experience world-class performers — human or animal — out here in this tiny, rural Wild West town. Mostly, we experience cows or horses standing quietly in the fields, with some of the world’s most breathtaking mountain scenery in the background. And we experience ourselves and our neighbors — we, who are not always the most highly trained or professional — struggling to make ends meet.
Then, once in a great while, if we are lucky, the circus will come to town.