Circus animal trainer talks about life with her four-legged family

Not many people can claim they grew up with an elephant, but Cathy Carden can.

A lifelong circus performer who started off as a ballerina on horseback at age 5 in her family’s circus, Carden not only grew up with elephants, but had an elephant best friend named Carol.

“It was just me and her,” said Carden, who works as an animal trainer with husband Brett Carden in the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Carden can remember a time when Carol let her hold on to her trunk while she cried after getting in trouble for sneaking out to see a movie at age 11.

“I just have that memory. It’s so vivid,” she said.

The two buddies are still together, working for the circus billed as “The Greatest Show on Earth,” along with her other lifelong elephant friend, Patty, Brett Carden’s elephant Duchess that he grew up with, and a host of other animals.

The Cardens, who were both raised in family circuses, fell in love while working together for Brett Carden’s father. A year-and-a-half of dating led to marriage and two young sons — George, 6, and Cash, 5 — not to mention a team of four-legged performers that includes three elephants, 18 dogs, two camels, seven miniature horses, two Arabian horses and two Shetland ponies.

The large family now travels the country in the circus’ Gold Unit, with mom and dad performing and their two boys going to tutoring.

Both Brett and Cathy Carden have circus running deep in their veins. His family has four generations of circus performers and three generations of elephant trainers. She can claim seven generations of circus performers, starting in 17th century England.

Cathy Carden’s father, George Hanneford Jr., who was a bareback rider, and mother, Victoria, who was a trapeze artist, were working for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey before they retired and started their own circus in the 1970s. They employed Carden and her brother, George III, as performers.

“I had the greatest childhood and the most awesome parents,” she said.

Her mother, who passed away about two years ago, joined the circus when she was about 13. Seeing how determined she was, Carden’s grandmother reluctantly consented.

As her family traveled from state to state, Carden developed her talent for training animals. She began with a pony that her father bought for her when she was 12.

For her, training is all about gaining the animal’s trust and breaking down the communication barrier. Once the trainer has a bond with an animal, it comes out of its shell and develops a personality, she said.

Take Cody the pony. When Carden bought him, he was skittish. But after working closely with Carden, he now feels comfortable enough to demand carrots from her before being led out for a trick.

“He’s so obnoxious,” she said.

As if one carrot wasn’t enough, the wily pony sneaks from the front of the line to the back to get another carrot from her before going on stage.

“Extortion is now part of my act now thanks to him,” she said.

While some animal rights groups have taken issue with training animals for performance, Carden believes performing is good for animals, especially elephants. She said it provides physical exercise and an emotional bond with humans, provided the training is done with care.

“If you do it with love and compassion ... it’s not wrong,” she said, adding they never force animals to do tricks if they do not feel comfortable.

The Cardens’ animal act includes synchronized dancing by the elephants, a liberty routine where Cathy directs untethered miniature horses and camels around her body, and a new trick where dogs will ride the miniature horses.

There are musical numbers as well, with the circus theme being “Super Circus Heroes.”

“It’s got something for everybody,” she said.

As for those concerned about the animals’ welfare, Carden encourages them to go see the animals for themselves. She said they will see happy, healthy animals that are not capable of pretending for the crowd.

“They’re not actors,” she said.