A Circus Affair

Written By Barbara O'Brien

Now if you are a close friend or a relative of mine and I ask you, no matter how sweetly, to help me out with a little animal job I have coming up, just say no.

At least that is what my poor Aunt Lois will tell you after learning the hard way.

It was many years ago. I had just started my animal actor business and I received a call from an event planner asking if I could provide a bunch of animals to be in a small circus parade for a big fundraising event.

Visions of lions and tigers and bears raced through my head as I thought of the animals I could supply and how wonderfully big the job would be.

And then the planner said, “Oh, and…we only have a real small budget for this, of course.”

The visions of the big circus animals quickly dissipated as smaller and far cheaper ones took their place. “Let me see what I can do.” I said. A horse would be easy and that could be considered somewhat circusy, I thought. I had a goat, some chickens and a few ducks on hand. But what else would say “Circus” and still be affordable? I then remembered a woman I had sold a horse to a while back that had some exotic animal connections, and so I gave her a call.

I told her my sad story and how it was for a charity and asked if perhaps she knew of some smaller exotics that might work in the parade. She said she had a cougar cub she was raising and mentioned that a friend of hers, an animal trainer from the coast, was bringing her new chimpanzee to visit during that time and asked if I would I like to use that also. “Would I! Sure!”

Before you get on your high horse about exotic animals being used for display, let me stop you right now and say, “I agree”. This happened many years ago and I wasn’t aware of the controversy related to animal exhibitions. Both of these people were licensed by the USDA and took very good care of their animals. Since that time I have stopped using exotic animals in my work.

The event was to be held in the ballroom of a fancy hotel in the heart of downtown Minneapolis. Since the event was very upscale and I wanted to make a good impression, I even went so far as to buy a new outfit to wear. It was pair of beautifully tailored wool pants and a burgundy velvet jacket.

All I had to do now was make sure that I had enough people to hold or lead all of the animals. My dear husband Kevin could lead the horse. The two trainers could hold the cougar and the chimpanzee and event volunteers could hold the chickens and the ducks. That just left the goat. I could lead him but I wanted to keep my hands free in the case I needed to step in and fix a problem.

This is where my poor Aunt Lois came in.

I asked my sister, Lou Ann, if she would be willing to lead a goat in the parade and, being a good sport, she agreed. Then she said, “Maybe Lois would like to help?” My Aunt had just moved back to the area after living out east for many years. She had given up her position as “Curator of Rights and Reproductions” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art to come back and to take care of her elderly parents and reconnect with family.

My sister told her about the event and my Aunt Lois must’ve thought it sounded pretty good. She would be able to have some fun with her nieces and perhaps even meet some new people.

The big day came and we groomed and we loaded the horse and goat, crated the ducks and chickens and headed off to the hotel. When we arrived, we met up with the cougar and the chimpanzee and found our spot in line. The horse was much more concerned about the chimpanzee than the cougar but soon settled down. The planner had told me that she would provide clown costumes for my helpers to wear and so I went to find her and get everyone suited up. When I finally located her, she said, “Oh, we are out of costumes. So many volunteers showed up that we ran out, but here are some clown noses and face paint that your people can wear.”

I went back and explained the situation to my sister and my aunt who had shown up in shabby clothes because they were supposed to lead a goat and they thought they would be covered by the costumes so no one would ever recognize them. I am sad to say that the red foam clown noses and the garish make up did nothing to help in their quest.

I fully expected that our little parade, which was to start in a service hall, and make it’s way through the ballroom and then back out into the hall, would go off with out a hitch. Everyone was ready. The chimp was nestled in his trainer’s arms and the young cougar was sitting quietly in his harness by his trainer’s feet. The horse up ahead had almost fallen asleep and the goat was nuzzling my sister’s hands looking for treats.

I had been told that we were to begin when I heard the music start. All was quiet, even the chickens had stopped cackling, as we waited for our cue. Then all of the sudden, right in front of us, a side door flew open and a drum major in full regalia burst out to the sound of a booming bass drum and blaring trumpets! It turned out to be a complete 120-piece high school marching band, playing Sousa as loud as they could as they proudly marched past.

Now, I have never seen a cougar fly but fly was what this cougar did when it leapt up into the air and came back down on the trainer’s head. The chimpanzee began to screech and jump up and down. The horse pulled back and tried to rear, but Kevin was able to calm it enough to let the band pass by. The volunteers dropped the chickens and ducks that squawked and quacked as they ran and hid under the nearest table.

I tried to help the cougar trainer by pulling the cougar off of her head, but the terrified animal scratched me, leaving a ten-inch scar in my beautiful velvet jacket. Once the band had passed, the event planner excitedly ordered, “GO!”

Kevin began to lead the horse but we were brought to a screeching halt when the goat planted all four of his little cloven hooves into the rubber-matted walkway and refused to move.

“Push it!” I shouted to my aunt, who being a lady of some class and distinction, had never been told to do such a task before.

“Push it where?! “ she shouted back over the din. “On it’s butt!” I cried. “Get it going!” She bent down, and as gracefully as she could, she pushed on the goat’s butt while my sister pulled on the lead. The goat held off a moment longer and began to go. We proceeded into the ballroom to and to the amazement of the guests, managed to get through with no other incidents.

Afterwards, we caught the stray chickens, cleaned up after the horse, and checked to make sure that neither man nor beast was hurt. Everyone was okay and we all went home a little wiser than before. My aunt still jokes about that day at family gatherings, telling of she how she sank so low so fast, from curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art to pushing a goat’s butt down the service hall of a fancy hotel and I remember that brass bands and cougars don’t mix.

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