Bond with the Elephants at Oklahoma’s Endangered Ark Foundation
Photo credit: Lori Duckworth/Oklahoma Tourism
This article was originally published in TulsaKids’ January 2020 issue. It was updated in spring 2021.
In May 2019, I was afforded the once-in-a-lifetime chance to go on an African safari. My husband and I explored Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve and the experience exceeded our expectations beyond measure. Among the astonishing number of wildlife, we encountered the highly sought out Big Five: rhinos, African buffalo, leopards, lions and (my all-time favorite) elephants!
For decades, I’ve been in love with elephants so much so that my “all things elephant” collection of jewelry, bookends and china keeps growing and includes two one-of-a-kind paintings, created by elephants themselves who held paint brushes in their long, muscular trunks to gently stroke the canvas in front of them.
Most of us simply don’t have the resources to pick up and go to Africa or Asia, especially while raising children. But, surprisingly, there’s a spot in nearby Hugo, Oklahoma, called the Endangered Ark Foundation (EAF) that affords visitors a tiny taste of what a safari might be like, and it’s only 2 ½ hours southeast of Tulsa.
EAF provides an up-close and personal experience with Asian elephants who call Hugo home. Established in 1993 by DR and Isla Miller (the former owners of multi-generational Carson and Barnes Circus), EAF’s herd is the second largest in America, consisting of 15 trumpeting elephants as of spring 2021, with thirteen females and two males. The youngest, Dori Marie, was born in 2015 while the oldest, Suzy, a retired show gal, is 65. Each pachyderm (the scientific word for a large mammal with exceptionally thick skin) has his/her own distinct and delightful personality, and they all live harmoniously on a 200-acre sanctuary.
The non-profit’s focus is on the conservation, education and preservation of endangered Asian elephants, and it operates as a circus elephant retirement “village.” The foundation started 26 years ago to take care of these beauties, and since 2017, there’s been an evolving program to invite and expose the public to them in a fun and exciting way. (Despite some animal welfare activists, Barbara Byrd, the Miller’s daughter, who is now in charge, insists that they’ve never violated the animal welfare act.)
To bond with the animals, elephant lovers have several different options with various levels of engagement, time and intimacy. On property, there are three separate buildings. One is a workshop and “baby barn” for expectant females. The remaining ladies live in a separate dwelling space while males are kept in the third space. The elephants spend time in and out of these structures throughout each day and night. EAF provides visitors with “… interactive educational demonstrations about what goes into caring for an elephant, as well as…information on the endangered Asian elephant residents and their behaviors.”
Highlights of the different tours include:
Public Tours: 60-90 minute tours are available Fridays, Saturdays, and most Sundays and timing “accommodates the structure and routines” of the herd. EAF asks guest to arrive 15 minutes prior to the start.
Private Encounters: Get more intimate with a deeper engagement with the herd. You will form an unforgettable bond as you feed, wash and just hang out with them. They may make paintings for you to admire, too.
Elephant Expeditions: EAF, in partnership with Oklahoma Awesome Adventures, now serves up day-long adventures. The experience begins at 8:30 a.m. and ends at 3 p.m. and includes bathing and feeding the elephants, and a luncheon with the caretakers.
Cabin Rentals: Rustic cabin rentals right next door to the sanctuary are available through Oklahoma Awesome Adventures. Costs include a hearty breakfast with the elephants. Overnight stays start at $275.
Special Groups: Private, tailor-made tours are available for groups such as school field trips, businesses, church groups, etc. Special arrangements must be made in advance.
Please keep in mind that each scenario requires advanced planning and arrangements made through EAF’s website or by phone. While in Hugo, if you’d like to add more adventure, picturesque Hugo Lake State Park is right up the road from AEF, offering a quiet respite for walking, hiking, fishing, boating and camping. Cabins are available here as well; plus, the sunsets are considered sensational.
At any rate, whether you spend an hour, a day or an overnighter, EAF’s elephant encounters offer an intimate experience with the animals. These gentle giants, young and old, embrace their human guests and welcome being fed, brushed and bathed — and even help to serve a meal.
It’s a well-known fact that elephants have memories of, well, elephants, so you will certainly leave a lasting imprint in their minds. To ensure that you will never forget your time with them, take a few “elphie selfies” for the memory book before heading home. And, ultimately, if you do get a chance to visit Africa someday, look for the differences between Asian and African elephants so, like me, you can further your expertise about all things elephant.