Two by Two

Oklahoma’s Endangered Ark Foundation preserves Asian elephants 

Two by Two

Raegan Baker and friend Savannah Baker along with mom Ashley Baker, grandmother Barbara Cummins and dad Mike Baker stand with an elephant at the Endangered Ark Foundation. Photo courtesy of Barbara Cummins

Long known to be a winter haven for circus performers, Hugo, tucked away in southeast Oklahoma, is also home to retired circus elephants. Located in Choctaw Electric Cooperative’s service territory, the Endangered Ark Foundation (EAF) is more than an elephant refuge, it’s like a spa to the second largest herd of Asian elephants in North America. 

The private non-profit organization is dedicated to ensuring the future of Asian elephants in North America and educating visitors about the animals—all while keeping the bond between animals and humans sacrosanct. 

Interactive demonstrations about what goes into caring for an elephant make learning fun. For instance, elephants walk on their toes with their heels serving as pads. The elephants’ feet are inspected daily and weekly pedicures keep their feet in tip-top shape. A bath is always fun, too. Visitors can give elephants a bath using a long-handled broom to exfoliate skin; just like kids, elephants run from the bath straight to the dirt to coat their skin and stay cool during the hot Oklahoma summers. As replacement teeth, tusks are composed of dentine. Not all elephants grow tusks. Males grow long ones; some females grow short ones and others don’t grow them at all. Tusks are cleaned regularly and sometimes they’re filed down to protect other elephants. 

Private encounters and tours are available for student groups, civic organizations, youth programs, businesses and other groups. While on the property, elephant lovers get up close and personal with the animals, caring for and feeding them. Each elephant eats between two to four square bales of hay and about 16 pounds of sweet feed each day. All in all, Endangered Ark residents eat 25 bales of hay and 165 pounds of feed daily—and that’s on top of being watered at least four or five times a day. 

Arlinda Copeland has lived in southeast Oklahoma her whole life. She said local people have been aware of the Endangered Ark Foundation since its founding in 1993. She’s been involved with EAF for years in various capacities, even serving as executive director until the summer of 2019. Now she’s returned to volunteering and consulting at EAF. 

Given her legacy with the foundation, it was hard for Copeland to nail down the best part about working with the elephants. In the end, it boiled down to her love of being an elephant ambassador. 

“It’s been really fascinating and fun to see people—from children up to 99-year-olds—have the opportunity to interact with elephants. Without EAF, many individuals would not have the opportunity to meet with them face to face and learn what neat animals they are,” Copeland said. “EAF creates that outlet. There’s no other experience quite like it.” 9 

Although the majority of the elephants at EAF are retired circus animals, Copeland was excited to announce that a new baby will arrive in fall 2020. It’s been a long wait because elephants are pregnant for just under two years. 

Karen Olmos, tour director and administration director, has volunteered and worked at EAF for over a decade. She said there’s much to love at EAF including people and animals. 

“Mostly it’s the animals themselves. They are part of the family,” she said. “I like doing what I can to enrich their lives—that’s the most important part. There’s not a lot of us volunteers, but we give it our all.” 

Olmos said visitors come from across the country to visit EAF. Some are elephant enthusiasts who have “never been able to touch one, feed one or look them in the eye.” 

Barbara Cummins who lives in Denton, Texas, brought a ladies group to Hugo to visit EAF. Cummins and her friends visited the Hugo museum, several restaurants and ended at EAF which she described as “the best experience,” adding that EAF is the highlight of the city. 

“It’s an incredible experience,” Cummins said. “You come away wanting to adopt an elephant.” 

Cummins was so enamored with EAF, she’s been back three times. She watched her grandchild bathe an elephant, she witnessed an elephant painting a T-shirt, she learned how much teeth weigh, and she jumped when a mother elephant trumpeted at her youngster to reel her in. 

“Every time, I come away with a new commitment to helping this foundation,” Cummings said. “You walk away on a high, feeling so exhilarated and in awe of these fabulous, intelligent animals. It’s a wonderful day. 

“The commitment the staff has to this project is incredible. They are doing such good work for such a good cause.”