Cathy Carden loves every member of her somewhat unusual family, which in addition to her husband and two young sons includes three Asian elephants, two horses, three camels, seven Shetland ponies and seven dogs.
And they're always together.
Whether it's relaxing on their farm in Missouri or traveling the country with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the family -- animals and people -- are happy doing what they do, Carden says.
Carden and husband Brett Carden are animal presenters in the Super Circus Heroes production that opens tonight, March 13, at McKenzie Arena. The "Greatest Show on Earth" also features Dimitri the Strong Man, Motorcycle Mania, Epic Asian Elephants, Wheel of Steel, Hand Balancers and other acts ready to perform feats of wonder and strength.
Shows are set to contemporary pop music and presented in 21st-century Barnum style. The Cardens' circus roots go much further back.
Cathy is a seventh-generation performer; Brett is a fourth-generation circus performer and third-generation elephant trainer who grew up with his family's show, the George Carden Circus.
"My dad was a bareback rider whose family was in the circus dating back to the 1600s in England," Cathy Carden says. "My family came to America in the early 1900s and started working for Ringling Bros. My mom, who was a trapeze artist, joined the circus at 18 years old. That's where she met my dad."
Unlike her own sons, George, 6, and Cash, 4, who, thus far, show no interest in being circus performers, Carden says she started performing at age 5 as an assistant in different acts. When she hit her teens, she became a bareback rider.
"The first time I fell off the horse, I didn't like bareback riding so much," she says. "But when you're in the circus, you do most everything until you find something you're really good at. I didn't like the trapeze. I wasn't very good at it, and my parents never wanted me in the air. And, at 5-feet, 8-inches, I'm tall and I'd get tangled up in the ropes."
In her 20s, she did discover her talent: working with animals.
¦ What: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's Super Circus Heroes.
¦ When: 7 p.m. today and Friday, March 13-14; 11 a.m., 3 and 7 p.m. Saturday, March 15; 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday, March 16.
¦ Where: McKenzie Arena
¦ Admission: $14 opening night (except premium tickets); $15, $25 and $30 all other shows, with limited number of $40 VIP and $45 VIP floor seating available.
¦ Phone: 423-266-6627.
¦ Website: www.TicketTracks.com.
The preshow party (free with your ticket) begins an hour before showtime. Partygoers can learn dance moves from clown DJ Dean, try on glitzy costumes, learn balancing and juggling skills, take photos with circus stars and get a backstage, close-up experience with the animals.
"Because I had been raised in the circus, I was always around the animals," she says, explaining that elephants lived on her parents' farm throughout her childhood. "I found at a young age that I had a natural ability with animals. I would find stray dogs, train them and keep them. It drove my mother crazy. I wasn't a kid that played on iPads all day -- like my kids want to do. I liked playing in the dirt with animals. It was awesome."
She played with the elephants and horses.
"I got my own pony when I was 12 and I loved training him," she says. "And, later, my father-in-law, who was also in the circus but retiring, gave me two camels. It was wonderful."
Today, Carden performs with all the animals, including two 40-year-old elephants she has been with since she was 5 years old.
While dogs are always a popular circus act ("Everyone knows and relates to dogs," Carden says), it's the elephants that grab everyone's attention.
"If you can relate to the loyalty of a dog, then you can imagine what an elephant's personality is like because they're as loyal and dedicated to their human families as much as or more than dogs. Two of our elephants, Carol and Patty, are from my childhood, and the other one, Duchess, is from my husband's. My two are totally devoted to me, while the other one is devoted to my husband. When I pet mine on their bellies, they make goofy noises and are affectionate. Duchess ignores me and reserves all the cute noises for Brett. It's funny to watch."
Elephants are also creatures of habit. They don't like changes in their routines, she says.
"When they perform, it's all business. They know what they're supposed to do, and they don't want you to make any changes," Carden says. "And they don't like storms. If one is coming, you have to cut their act short."
The Cardens travel with the circus in an RV, and the animals are transported in a tractor-trailer, she says.
Carden likens it to "farming with travel."
"Most of the work that goes into it is not seen in the two-hour performance," she says. "There's doctoring, grooming and living with the animals."
Contact Karen Nazor Hill at email@example.com or 423-757-6396.