Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Elephant Escape 1975

Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe these were the elephants that Joey Frisco let get away? "Isa never coming home," was the cliche term often used at the time.

Aug 4, 1975

The town of Hugo, Okla. shrivels in the sun like a dead tumbleweed. The time-temperature clock over the Citizen's Bank registers 102 at 1:02 p.m. At the Chamber of Commerce, an out-of-date census report languishing in a wall rack gives Hugo's population as 6,900.

Add now to this inaccurate number two Indian elephants, only 16 months in captivity, who have run away from a circus to the Hugo Lake Reservoir, bringing the population to 6,902. The new residents of Hugo, who have been roaming the woods for the past three weeks, were formerly members of the Carson and Barnes Circus. With three other elephants, they were on their way to perform with a circus in Mexico City when they escaped, touching off an elephant hunt of highly comic proportions.

It should be difficult not to notice two elephants escaping, but only a handful of people saw them skedaddle. One was their handler, known only as Wade. Another was truck driver Dixie Loter, a hefty redhaired woman who does not bother to explain why she made a career out of driving a truckful of elephants. "I do what Mr. Miller tells me," is all she will say. Doris Richard Miller, who understandably prefers to be known as D. R. Miller, owns the circus and the elephants. The latter are valued at $10,000 each, and he would like to have them back.

Their names are Lilly and Isa, and they are five or six years old, still infants in elephant terms, for they will not reach maturity until age 25. They stand about 4 feet high and weigh only 1,500 pounds, elephantine featherweights. Lilly and Isa took leave of the circus on the grounds of its winter headquarters in Hugo, having stopped there en route from Minneapolis where the Carson and Barnes Circus was playing. After the elephants left the truck, a load of steel poles was dumped with such a clatter that three of the elephants stampeded. One was quickly recovered, but Lilly and Isa made it into the 26,000 acres of woodland.

Hugo Lake, with its 110 miles of shoreline, is surrounded by dense bottomland hardwood. It is, says a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, an old hickory type of forest, its trees of the broad-leaf variety. "You could miss someone, even an elephant, standing 25 feet away." Poison oak and bois d'arc—a bush with long, sharp thorns—discourage exploration, and the area is notorious for copperheads, water moccasins and rattlesnakes.

In spite of such detractions, when the Hugo Daily News announced two days after the disappearance that a reward of $150 was being offered by the circus to anyone spotting the runaways, the town was invaded by instant white hunters on horses and in dune buggies and airplanes. Cars crawled up and down dirt roads, their occupants peering into the brush. Motorcycles scrambled around treacherous trails, the riders looking for clues. The only official search party was Sheriff James Buchanan's 11-man posse, and for the first few days it turned up virtually nothing.

Nearly 2 tons of elephant had vanished without a trace. Trumpeted The Daily Oklahoman (the only thing around that was trumpeting): ELUSIVE ELEPHANTS SEND HUGO ON JUMBO SAFARI. Changing his tactics, the sheriff took his men to a trail that turned north off Highway 70, then west once in the woods. Crossing Dry Creek, they saw elephant droppings, a trampled barbed-wire fence, signs of wallowing and trees from which the bark had been rubbed off. The sheriff was greatly cheered, even though his phone was "ringing itself off the wall" with people calling in rumors of sightings, suggestions and insults.

How could anyone not find one elephant, much less two? Many calls came from out-of-towners who had never seen the density of the woods at Hugo, and the amiable, soft-spoken sheriff quietly and doggedly went on with his search, even ignoring a wooden sign that suddenly appeared on a shoulder off Highway 70, its message scrawled in red paint: CAUTION ELPHANT CROSSING. Two days later another prankster doodled floppy ears over a steer's horns on an official form used for reporting lost or stolen cattle, sketched in a trunk and sent it to the Cattlemen's Association in Oklahoma City. "It is definitely the first missing-elephant report we have ever received," said an association spokesman.

Walter White, president of Hugo's Chamber of Commerce, complained that the elephants were getting more attention than the upcoming election of a new Indian chief of the Choctaw Nation or the upcoming Bluegrass Festival, which was offering barbecued armadillo, fried possum, snake steaks, nature dancing, snake dancing, rain dancing and all-day fiddling and guitar playing. He further said he had heard that two cowboys on horseback actually saw the elephants, chased them and tried to "bulldog them down" by grabbing their ears.

The two cowboys turned out to be an Assembly of God preacher without a church, named Gerald Burton, and a cattleman, Glen Stanfield. They allowed they had tracked the animals for four days and "jumped them" in the bush.

"Why, shoot, I've tracked cows and horses and hogs all my life," said Burton, stout and 60ish. Stanfield, slight and noticeably bowlegged, as befits a man who has been straddling horses most of his life, also prides himself on being a good hunter. They followed clues, meeting each morning near where the elephants had disappeared. There was grass mashed down, sand scrapings, a barbed-wire fence on which there was blood. "One of them got hung up, maybe tore her ear," said Burton. "We tracked them right to a thicket and there they was. Couldn't see nothin' but their feet." Startled, the elephants ran. "When them elephants come out of the thicket," Burton said, "my horse was so spooked, if there'd been a ladder he would of climbed it."

Burton and Stanfield galloped after them, their progress retarded by timber and brush the elephants simply crashed through. Then Burton saw an opportunity to head them off, and the elephants turned, stopping for a few seconds at a fence. Alarmed by the excited men and frantic horses, the elephants took off once more. "I got off my horse and grabbed one by the ear," said Burton, "but she slung me off. Then the second one passed me, and I grabbed her by the ear and the trunk, but that didn't slow her down none. Finally, we had to give up."

Dixie Loter chose not to believe a word of the above report, though she conceded that the two men might have caught a glimpse of Lilly and Isa.

"They wasn't supposed to chase them anyway, just come back and tell their location," she said. "Nobody's going to catch them elephants on horseback." The opinion grew around Hugo that the elephants had taken to life in the wild. There was no organized effort on the part of interested parties to pool their resources, and no firm plan for bringing the pachyderms out of the woods once they were found. Each day Dixie Loter, with three male helpers, went out on her own foot safari, baiting areas where she found "signs" with sweet hay, hoping the elusive Lilly and Isa would be tempted by the odor of their circus diet, though the elephants could eat their way through Hugo's forest for the next 10 years and hardly make a dent.

"Nobody ain't going to catch them elephants on foot," said Burton. "What she wearing out there? Tennis shoes? Lord 'a mercy!" Nevertheless, Dixie was pleased to announce last week that she had discovered a new sign in an area no one else had searched. Another fence was down. But this time the elephants were not guilty.

"I cut that fence down myself one day when the posse took a shortcut," said Sheriff Buchanan with a wicked twinkle. "She ain't looking in the right place."

"The area around Hugo Lake is a Shangri-la for elephants," said veteran animal trainer Bob Jenni, who was quoted in The Daily Oklahoman a week or so after the elephants took off. "Like children lost in the woods, they would undoubtedly wander around and play at first before they realized they were lost. And then they probably would trumpet from a profound loneliness and insecurity." On the other hand, they might not. "If left to themselves, they might not make any noise at all," Jenni admitted.

The Daily Oklahoman published new clues or no clues with equal impartiality, and telephone calls were coming in from as far away as Los Angeles and Toronto. The question was always the same. How could anyone not find an elephant or two? Hugo's chief booster, Walter White, could not understand what the fuss was about. He said he was up to his armpits in brochures promoting the Bluegrass Festival when "this dude walked in from the Noo York Times, wanting to know like everybody else how come we cain't locate something big as a elephant. He was wearing a double-knit suit, and I turned him over to Sheriff Buchanan, who set him on a horse and took him into the woods." White clearly enjoyed the scene. "Wish you could have saw that double-knit suit when it come out of the brush. He only stayed in there about 30 minutes, then went back to Noo York."

Residents of Hugo were constantly receiving advice, via the press and local radio station, about what to do if Lilly and Isa suddenly appeared in their gardens. Helpful hints on how to entertain elephants who dropped by for a visit had to do mainly with what kind of taste treats to offer. Elephants enjoy a split cantaloupe or a peach. A bale of hay is also a good idea, the knowledgeable advised.

"Them elephants better not set so much as one toe on my property," grumbled a grizzled old cowhand, " 'cause I'll shoot 'em," and he gave a decisive pull to his cap, emblazoned with the motto THE RIGHT TO HEAR ARMS. But most of Hugo felt nothing but friendly concern for the two overgrown infants. Naturally, old elephant jokes and some newly created were making the rounds:

Knock, knock.

Who's there?


Isa who?

Isa never comin' home.

A waitress leaned over a table at the Village Inn, giggling. "Did you hear," she asked, "about the man leading an elephant into a hotel? It had a slice of bread stuck onto its trunk and another slice stuck to its tail." The diners smiled expectantly and the waitress continued. "The clerk at the hotel says, 'You can't bring that elephant in here,' and the man answers, 'Ain't no elephant, it's a sandwich.' "

And the search went on, punctuated by laughter and weary sighs, shot through with both real and bogus news bulletins. The critters had been spotted but not seized. They were here, they were over there. Sic transit trumpet.


Joey Frisco said...

I have a very good excuse for this happening. I wasn't even born yet. How old dO u think I am? Haha

Joey Frisco

Wade G. Burck said...

"I wasn't born yet" is a lame alibi. If it wasn't you, who was then?


Ryan "Radar" Easley said...

Article states February 1974 as an arrival date of these two. Was that the largest and last import group by DR?

Ryan "Radar" Easley said...

Excuse me, April 1974.

Wade G. Burck said...

When I went to pick up baby Obert, Kelly, and Tracy 3 months prior to this to present in Denver for Clyde Bros Circus, there were 51 elephants on the show. Two adult Asians, one young African named Paula, and 48 young Asians ranging in ages from 3 to 6 all with their names stenciled on their foreheads in 3 inch white letters. The headpieces were 3 inch round washers, each one held together with a link from a cut chain. The elephant tubs were catch traps for street manholes. The tractor had one seat and a half a 55 gallon oil barrel turned upside down for the passenger, and no windshield. When I questioned D.R. about the windshield he said, "it's all right unless you drive at night. Then you need to put on the welding goggle's behind the seat or you'll get bug's in your eyes." I had finally hit the big time. :)


Ryan "Radar" Easley said...

That is quite the image you have painted. Thank you for sharing. I will have to go digging around WQ down the street to find one of those old headpieces :)

Wade G. Burck said...

Things were a lot different "back in the day." You bypassed boot camp and went straight to the front lines. You sank or swam, those were the two options. There were no do overs. The elephants were so green, Okie advised me not to take the leg chains off but to instead just take them off the picket chain leaving the leg chains on, so they walked dragging eight foot of chain on one back leg with the front leg chain thrown over their necks.
When we arrived in Oklahoma to water and off load the equipment that had been put in the truck to be returned to winter quarters, Isa and Lilly had pulled so hard on their chains they were "locked" through the ring and I couldn't get them out. I offloaded the other three and put them on the picket line that had been strung between to semi tractors and took the chains off of Isa and Lilly and brought them out. As I was putting new leg chains on them there was a loud crashing and banging as they threw some tent poles out of the truck and the three on the picket line screamed and lunged forward jerking the bumpers off the two tractors the chain was attached to. The picket chain hit me in the back of the legs and knocked me down and in an instant it was "off to the races," two elephants loose and three on the back leg chain dragging the bumpers, with me in hot pursuit. We ran for about a half a mile and as they were running down a hill, one of the elephants on the picket line(Margaret)fell, and I was able to grab a bumper and a bit of chain and wrap it around a tree securing them. As I rolled over and got back to my knee's I looked up just in time to see Isa and Lilly's butt's as they went down a ditch, through a barb wire fence, and across the interstate. That was the last time I saw either one of them, until about 15 years later, when they were all grown up. :) Okie said, "don't worry about it kid, it happens all the time. I wish we could have sent someone with you. Head to Mexico City with the three, and D.R. will square any beef's with the show." When I got to Mexico I was informed that the two show elephants performed in the ring, and I had to perform outside the ring, with no ring curb!!!! By the time we returned 3 months later the babies(and I) had some miles, and they were able to be moved about without chains being kept on their legs.



Ryan "Radar" Easley said...

Thank you again for the stories, Wade. Besides Margaret, which other two went to Mexico City with you? For which show did you work and any chances you remember the names of the show's two elephants? :)

Wade G. Burck said...

The other two elephants were Alda and Viola. The show elephants I don't ever recall knowing. I stabled my 3 in a different location near Pat Anthony's cats. I didn't want them around the other elephants. Two old, old, lame paralyzed trunk cows they bought off some mudder in the United States.