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 The time-temperature clock over the Citizen's Bank registers 102° at 1:02 p.m. At the Chamber of Commerce, an out-of-date census report languishing in a wall rack gives Hugo's population as 6,900.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 4½ 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.
August 3, 1975
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:
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.